Wealth, stress, and marital happiness

Does Living "The Good Life" Guarantee a Good Marriage?

Posted May 30, 2012

My husband and I agree that our relationship of 15 years would be absolutely perfect, if only we had no stress at all in our lives. We suspect this is true because our vacations together are a guaranteed good time. Every five to eight years, when we are fortunate enough to find ourselves in a tropical paradise with none of the stress of daily life pressing in on us, before I get the severe sunburn I always seem to acquire, we inevitably spend some very, very happy days together.  

Perhaps the wealthiest among us, who can afford much more frequent vacations and vacation-like features in their own homes à la HGTV’s “million dollar rooms,” have particularly delightful lives, and therefore, more delightful marriages?  

A specific example of a famously happy marriage at the wealthiest end of the spectrum is perhaps that of Edith and George Vanderbilt. I’ll never forget a trip my husband and I took to the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina. We were touring the house and grounds, plugged into one of those self-guided audio tours. Upon entering Edith Vanderbilt’s sumptuously decorated private living quarters, a narrator read aloud from one of Edith Vanderbilt’s early letters. In the letter, Edith summed up her marriage, saying, “We were just so happy together.”  

Edith and George’s relationship was then described by the curators of the Biltmore estate:  

The young couple uniquely complemented one another: Edith, with her independent, compassionate, and industrious talents, and George, with his thoughtful, visionary, and intelligent worldview. Both Edith and George were socially progressive individuals who believed firmly in their ability to be catalysts for a better quality of life for Western North Carolina residents. Together, they created initiatives, programs, industries, and schools that forever changed the face of this part of the Blue Ridge Mountains*. 

I was very impressed by the account of the partnership of this early power couple. To be honest, though, a part of me was also thinking, ‘Yes, it follows that this couple would have been very happy together. After all, who wouldn’t be, in the context of endless parties, dips in the pool, picnics on the grounds, and intimate dinners with some of the most fascinating people in the world?’ 

Here is an account of one of the grand—and not all that unusual—social scenes of the Biltmore estate: 

An evening under the stars is always a magical experience. But imagine an elaborate, moonlit birthday party in Biltmore's gardens, colorful Japanese lanterns hanging from trees and shrubbery, an orchestra guiding guests towards midnight. This is not the stuff of fairy tales, although it seemed as such to those attending. Instead, it was the very real birthday celebration in 1925 for George and Edith Vanderbilt's only daughter, Cornelia. The event actually began in the afternoon, when employees gathered in the gardens for a tea party and dancing to Guthrie's Orchestra. Biltmore dairy employees presented the newlywed Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil with “one of the largest cakes ever made by Biltmore Dairy,” consisting of 26 gallons of ice cream with alternating layers of chocolate parfait, Lady Ashe ice cream, all covered with a vanilla mousse and studded with roses and lilies. The cake was four feet high and two feet square at the base, and the inscribed birthday sentiment was equally as grand and magnificent—“May your joys be as many as the sands in the sea.” By 9:30 p.m. dancing to the Charles Freicher Orchestra was underway in a pavilion, and the whole affair was crowned with a midnight buffet. The newspaper accounts captured it best. “The beautiful array of summer gowns of the many dancers made a scene as beautiful as that of gay moths and fireflies in a fairy garden**.”  

Ultimately, no one is immune from stress entirely. In fact, Edith Vanderbilt weathered one of the greatest tragedies I can imagine, the sudden loss of her beloved husband George, who died unexpectedly at age 52 of a heart attack. Maybe Edith and George Vanderbilt would have had a wonderful marriage in any circumstance…who am I to say otherwise? At the same time, I tend to believe that such a happy (and richly endowed) life is bound to spill over into the marriage of all but the most unfortunately matched couple.

Quite plausibly, the space afforded by such wealth would also lubricate quite a bit of potential marital friction. Feeling irritated by your spouse? Simply retreat to your private quarters, in the case of George Vanderbilt, a luxurious suite wall-papered in actual gold leaf, and ring the staff for a cup of tea and a foot massage. Or, retreat perhaps to the “men only” billiards room for some male bonding before re-engaging with your spouse. Or hit pause during a particularly tense marital moment and cool off by taking a dip in a crystalline pool while priceless works of art stand sentry.  

Along these lines, I recently saw a show on HGTV about “mom caves” – hard-working (upper middle class) mothers get the gift of a room makeover in their homes so that they can escape the chaos of their lives for a few hours. How would a room of your own benefit your marriage? Think about it…you wouldn’t have to consult your spouse about how to decorate your own private corner of the world. It would offer you an instant retreat when you need to recharge your batteries or when you just need a brief break from interacting with your partner. You could ready yourself for a romantic night out in the privacy of your own space before presenting yourselves to each other for the evening. You would not have to share a toilet.  

There is strong evidence in my research sample that well-educated people think about life partnerships in a different way, and set up their lives strategically and quite intentionally. I am not an elitist – I believe that anyone from any social or educational background is capable of creating an exceptional marriage. The goal of speaking truthfully about the approach taken by those in successful relationships is to inspire the creation of more lasting, loving, freeing marriage partnerships.  

However, it is critical to establish up front that the lower levels of stress in the lives of more affluent people certainly boost their chances of enjoying their marriages more fully. Wealth gives some couples lots of elbow room and this can lower the stress level in a marriage significantly. Many couples simply cannot afford rooms of their own. For this reason, it would never be fair or accurate to assert that the primary or only reason that well-educated couples have better marriages is because they make smarter decisions in their marriages. The context of peoples’ lives and the levels of stress they carry contribute significantly to many important outcomes in life, including marital outcomes.   

*Author unknown. “Edith Vanderbilt.” Accessed February 20, 2011. <http://www.biltmore.com/our_story/stories/esv.asp> 

**Author unknown. “Cornelia’s Garden Party.” Accessed February 20, 2011. <http://www.biltmore.com/our_story/stories/cornelia_garden.asp> 

About the Author

Shauna Springer, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist, relationship and lifestyle researcher, and author of Marriage, for Equals: The Successful Joint (Ad)Ventures of Well-Educated Couples.

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