Marriage, money, debt, and divorce?

By glblguy

How many times have you heard the money is the leading cause of divorce? For years, this has been a common belief by most everyone, including marriage counselors, financial experts and myself. Turns out, this may not be the case.

Jan Anderson, a family and consumer sciences professor at California State University Sacramento, set out to prove this theory by writing a doctoral dissertation on the subject. Anderson both taught personal finance classes and came from a family that ended up in divorce as well. Like me, Anderson enjoyed teaching money skills in hopes to not only educate people, but hopefully to save a few marriages as well.

Anderson started by looking for research supporting the claim that money is the leading cause of divorce. He didn’t find much. Actually, he only found one survey done in 1948 on postwar divorced women. The survey, which asked what caused their divorce.. The survey showed that “non-support” (indicating their husbands hadn’t provided money to meet their basic needs) was the leading reply.

What is interesting about the survey is that non-support was one of the only valid reasons to get a divorce during that time. The survey also focused only on women, not men.

More recent survey’s showed money as a cause, but it was seldom ranked higher than fourth or fifth as the leading cause of divorce or marital problems.

Anderson’s research

Professor Andersen looked at a national database of more than 2,000 husband and wife households for his research. The data was collected over a 12-year period from 1980-92. Andersen focused on questions related to money to see if financial trouble in one time period predicted the likelihood of divorce in a future time period.

The result – as predictors of divorce, financial problems are useless, he says. Financial problems never explained more than five percent of the variability in divorce. Anderson says, “If financial problems are so important, there would have been a stronger relationship. They appear to be merely a small part of the mix.”

Anderson speculates that that financial issues in marriage may not be as important as they were back in the 40s and 50s. This is particularly true as far more women are now in the workplace and men are no longer the sole bread winners in today’s world. Anderson also adds: “Or, perhaps, financial problems were never a major factor in most divorces, but were cited by respondents in earlier studies because they were legally or socially acceptable reasons for divorce.”

Anderson continues his research and is now currently looking at couples’ debt loads to see their is a relationship between credit problems and divorce. He also believes, personally, that learning to deal with money problems can make a marriage less stressful, and perhaps more likely to survive. Well said Mr. Anderson.

Not everyone agrees

Not everyone is convinced though, including me. Olivia Mellan disagrees. Mellan is a therapist who assists people with money problems and author of Money Harmony: Resolving Money Conflicts in Your Life and Relationships. She believes that money and sex are still taboo subjects, and she hears enough tales of money problems in her practice that she’s unconvinced by Andersen’s research.

Where Mellan agrees with Anderson (as do I) is that money is a symptom of more deep and complicated issues that lie underneath. Mellan says: “It’s always what the money represents: dependency, control, freedom, security, pleasure, and self-worth.”

Communication and Control

Personally, I believe money can cause marital stress, but the underlying problems are control and lack of communication. Most money issues in marriage seem to be related to lack of communication and control issues. Dedicating time to talk about money together can and will address both of these issues. Couples should do their finances together.

What are your thoughts? Do you believe money is the issue? Add a  comment!

Photo by: Ed Yourdon

17 Responses (including trackbacks) to “Marriage, money, debt, and divorce?”

  1. Rob Says:

    Actually I finally found out the REAL reason for divorce.


  2. Dave Says:

    Rob’s comment made me laugh.

    Money has it’s role in everything including divorce. I think how much depends on the situation.

  3. Dan Says:

    To call a spade a spade, the real reason for most divorce is dishonesty. People usually lie most about money, how much they have, how much they make, how much they expect to make in the future. Lie to your fiancée to get her to marry you, and then after a few years when it becomes obvious you were not honest and it’s goodbye! She might say it’s for money reasons, but it’s really because you lied to her in the first place.

    All dishonesty comes from mistrust and a desire to control other people. You do not trust your girlfriend/wife to still love you if you are honest with your financial prospects, so you attempt to manipulate her behavior with lies. Sooner or later she catches on to your controlling behavior and realizes and generally resents it.

    A better way is to be honest and realistic about your situation and your potential. Start by being honest with yourself, and then with your beloved. If she is not interested in marrying a man with uncertain prospects (say you’re a writer who might write a bestseller, but more likely won’t ever get rich) then she will make that decision before the marriage. If she decides to marry you knowing all the pros and cons before, it’s much less likely she will turn her back if money times get hard.

  4. Kristen Says:

    While I tend to agree that money and control are huge underlying issues, I think there’s also another problem. My personal opinion is that a lot of people get married before they really have an honest discussion about practical things like how they will manage their money, how they will raise their kids, etc. You can easily end up with two people who just have completely opposite ideas and habits, especially when it comes to money, and they don’t realize it until after they are married and have joined their lives. If people aren’t willing or change or meet in the middle things can end badly.

    I don’t mean to get on a moral high-horse here, but I think too many people don’t take their vows seriously. “Til death do us part,” has become, “As long as it’s convenient for me.” This is certainly not to say that someone should stay in a marriage where their mental well-being or physical safety is in jeopardy, but too many people throw in the towel when it comes to working through some issues.

  5. Lin Burress Says:

    I agree with you and Megan that the real problem is lack of communication and control issues. It amazes me the number of women especially who have no idea about the family finances, how much debt there is, saying “he pays the bills and he knows how much money we have and don’t have, and I don’t worry about that”. What a mistake!

    Also alarming is the number of women who don’t think it’s important for them to understand even the basics of money management, investing, good credit etc. It’s extremely important for women to become knowledgeable about finances and managing money, and should actively participate in paying bills etc, but there again is the all-too-common “control” issues that some women are dealing with.

  6. Becky@FamilyandFinances Says:

    My pastor once said that the number one reason for divorce, in his opinion, was hardness of heart. I tend to agree. Other issues seem to come down to having a hard heart.

  7. Ryan McLean Says:

    Great post for me as I am looking to get married shortly (feb 26 actually). More details on how to not make finances an issue in your marriage would be good

  8. Bettsi Says:

    As one who is currently going through a divorce, I can say that in my situation, the money was a BIG part of our problems at the end. My husband became a very big drinker for about the last year of our marriage and his spending behavior became more out of control. He was spending a lot of money that we didn’t have in order to allow his bar lifestyle. So, while the primary unhappiness in our marriage was his drinking – the damage it was causing our family financially was one of my biggest motivations for getting out. What I couln’t do for my own well-being I was able to do for my children’s financial well-being.

  9. Going Gazelle Says:

    Money issues and money fights are not about dollars. Money is usually just a means to an ends. Its a very finite resource. Its measurable. Its trackable. It is the easy scapegoat you can blame on the surface for the deeper issues. Why? Because anybody who’s been married 2 days has had a “money fight!”

    At the end of the day it boils down to values, goals, priorities.

    How does a couple work on values, goals, and priorities? They communicate about them…. Then comes the neogiation skills (more communication).

    An alcoholic (or any addict for that matter) values getting drunk today as a higher priority than saving money for retirement, college, etc.

    The couple who has complete disagreements about values, goals and priorities.

    I tell everybody the best thing that will happen from your FPU class – and that you’ll see immediate results in – is that your marriage will improve. The real magic that happens in an FPU class. Dave defines some value boundaries – “no new debt” – “make a commitment to get out of debt.” He gets couple’s communicating. The baby steps helps couples set goals. The baby steps provide a priority system which you work on the goals.

  10. Bill @ How to Save Marriage Says:

    You are absolutely right that the real issue is control (and stress), and these both can be solved through communication.

    The partner who handles the books (there’s almost always one who has this responsibility) has quite a bit of power by controlling the money and making the majority of the financial decisions. Unfortunately, with the responsibility comes stress — often significant stress.

    I recommend that couples schedule regular money meetings so that they can discuss all of their finances. This way both partners have input when it’s time to make decisions, and both share the stress.

    So, like you said, communication is the answer. It won’t make the money problems go away, but a couple that communicates can better share the load.

  11. Steward Says:

    I think I tend to agree that money is rarely the main reason for divorcing a spouse. I mean if you really think about it, it is the crappiest of all crap reasons to leave. But the again I am pretty hardcore on marriage – thinking that divorce is only permissible under conditions that threaten the physical, emotional, or spiritual health of a family and should only continue until the grossly offending party stops being such a jerk – so my input may not be very normal. I also think that divorce should never be final unless the somebody dies before the offending party changes and reconciliation occurs.

  12. Miranda Says:

    I see a lot of great thoughts here that I agree with! I would just like to add that one of the things that money can do is provide additional stress. I know that I am a lot more stressed if I am waiting for a late payment on an invoice, and worried about whether it will come in time to go grocery shopping on the day my husband would like. I am touchier and much more difficult to deal with (although I have made efforts to pray to God to help work on this issue).

    When there are money problems, it adds to the normal stresses of everyday life and can tend to magnify them.

  13. ChristianPF Says:

    @Going Gazelle
    great points – I completely agree… GLBL, thanks for pointing this out, I have always touted that statistic that money is the leading cause of divorce, I guess I shouldn’t be so quick to say that anymore…

  14. Dawn Says:

    Hmmm… I wonder how many folks commenting have been through divorce? I’m not throwing stones, it just seems like a lot of speculation on here on why people get one and what happens. I am recently divorced (as of June 5th) and I can say definitively that money played no part in our divorce. I have a few friends going through rough marriages right now and money isn’t a part of their problems either, although I do know one where money is very much the problem. I think the reasons for divorce are as varied as the people that get married.

  15. Mr. ToughMoneyLove Says:

    I believe the inverse is true: divorce is a major causative factor of subsequent money problems.

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