I was listening to an episode of The Prof G Pod with Scott Galloway the other day and he said two things that stopped me in my tracks: (1) we aggregate wealth faster in married households or households where people have partners and (2) the number one cause of divorce, is not infidelity or a lack of shared values, it’s money. Unless there was a significant change in relationship patterns in recent years, the evidence doesn’t support either assertion.
My intention isn’t to pick on Prof G. Many people have these ideas about divorce. At least, I know it’s a commonly held belief that financial problems are the leading cause of divorce. I know fewer people who believe that couples accumulate wealth faster (I assume he means relative to unmarried, single households).
Couples aggregate wealth faster than singles
Couples with higher levels of income and wealth are more likely to marry. One implication is that we cannot dismiss the possibility that these individuals may have accumulated wealth relatively quickly, regardless of their relationship status. On the flip side, it’s harder to prove that marriage causes wealth, although it’s certainly true that couples (married and unmarried) financially benefit from their ability to share costs of living like rent and childcare.
The selective nature of marriage also affects the likelihood of divorce. If you want to learn more about that, check out my post about whether 50% of marriages really end in divorce.
Top reasons for divorce
Infidelity and substance use are among the most common reasons for ending a marriage. One peer-reviewed study looked at data from 1980-1997 and found that infidelity, incompatibility, drinking or drug use, and growing apart were the top reasons for divorce. Another study from 2013 found that lack of commitment, infidelity, and conflict/arguing were the top reasons for divorce. These couples also said that infidelity, domestic violence, and substance use were the final straws that pushed them to end the marriage.
In other words, finances were not among the top reasons for divorce.
To be fair, one explanation could be that unmarried couples are more likely to break up than tie the knot if they argue about finances. Unmarried couples were not included in those studies, so we don’t know their reasons for separation.
Additionally, reasons for divorce like lack of commitment or incompatibility could certainly be driven by arguments related to finances. Researchers have found that arguments about money early in the relationship tend to predict divorce within the next 5 years. Marital conflicts about money are also unique in that they can be more pervasive, longer-lasting, and occur more frequently compared to arguments about non-money-related issues. One way to interpret this is that financial problems could be the initial catalyst for relationship dissatisfaction, but couples can begin developing more problems over time. By the time that these couples actually file for divorce, the problems may become so complex that they point to reasons other than finances to explain why they’re ending the marriage.
In fact, couple’s financial circumstances may matter less than each partner’s attitudes and communication styles when it comes to divorce. For example, negative communication patterns such as criticism and verbal threats are associated with lower satisfaction, regardless of whether they are experiencing financial stressors.
Speaking of the complicated nature of these conflicts, a disagreement may initially start out as an argument related to money, but it can eventually bleed into other parts of their life including parenting and sex. Money may also be a proxy for other underlying issues. For example, a couple disagreeing about combining financial accounts may actually be arguing about trust or autonomy rather than money itself.
Are finances the number one reason for divorce? The answer is no, but maybe. It’s not what couples say when you ask them why they divorced but research shows that finances are often a contributing factor. What appears to matter most is the way that couples communicate about issues related to money. Setting expectations and goals around finances may help in preventing these conflicts and improve overall relationship satisfaction. This can result in a positive self-reinforcing cycle since happy couples are more inclined to invest their relationships.