For Love and For Money

A Bridgeport, Connecticut lawyer says, “I’ve seem more divorces over a major remodeling project going over budget than affairs.”  That’s not surprising because research has demonstrated that money battles are a leading cause of divorce.

money disputes were the best harbingers of divorce.

Money disputes were the best harbingers of divorce.

Researchers have found that in almost every way imaginable, people choose mates who look, sound and act as they do. Except for money. In the area of married life perhaps most fraught with  conflict – money – somehow, some way, people gravitate toward their polar opposite, a new study says.

Spendthrifts and tightwads tend to marry the other, and these ants and grasshoppers report unhappier marriages than people with more similar attitudes toward spending.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan and Northwestern University looked at several surveys that asked a married couple to rate themselves on a tightwad-spendthrift scale. The scale does not refer to how much they earn but rather how they feel about spending. In general, spendthrifts spend with abandon; by contrast, tightwads squeeze a $20 bill until Andy Jackson screams for mercy. Amidst the alchemy of opposites, love blossoms – to a modest but statistically significant degree, the study found.

Established research concludes that fighting about or over money is the fuel that consumes marital happiness. In 2009, Jeffrey Dew at Utah State University, reported that couples who disagreed about finance once a week were over 30 percent more likely to get divorced than couples who reported disagreeing about finances a few times a month.

Professor Dew looked at responses from about 2,800 couples surveyed in 1987 by the National Survey of Families and Households. In this survey, both husbands and wives were asked, separately, about how often they disagreed with their spouse over chores, in-laws, spending time together, sex and money. These same respondents were then contacted again several years later, in 1992, and asked if they were still married.

For both husbands and wives of all these common things couples fight about, money disputes were the best harbingers of divorce.

No one knows why people move toward their opposites in finances.  Perhaps what people dislike in themselves they dislike in others; and the more a person dislikes a quality, the more that person tried to avoid it.

“I can see how this might be one of those kinds of seductive differences in the early stages of courtship,” said Stephanie Coontz, a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and research director for the Council on Contemporary Families. “Maybe you say to yourself, ‘This guy makes me feel so free,’ or ‘This gal reins me in.’ ”

Alas, spending decisions are a common source of marital conflict and a major contributor to divorce.

People are aware of this potential for conflict. In another set of surveys, the authors asked unmarried people about their ideal mates. The answers generally described a spouse identical to them on consumption concerns: the more these unmarried survey respondents said they disliked spending money, the more they thought their soul mates should also dislike spending money, and vice versa.

Perhaps the disconnect between the qualities people say they want and the spouses they actually choose happens because people don’t talk about money, relationship experts say. “You would be shocked at how many people don’t talk about these things before they get married,” said Susan Reach Winters, a divorce lawyer in Short Hills, N.J. “I mean, they’re willing to get naked with these people before they get married, but they don’t, or can’t, talk about money before they get married.” Couples never come around to addressing how their different attitudes toward spending would play out in day-to-day married life.

But more broadly, just like the proverbial woman who says she wants a nice guy but really goes for the bad boys, people are also just plain bad at predicting what they want in love and marriage, the researchers found.

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