Buying new things makes us happy, right? It does invite a quick spurt of what PT blogger Loretta Bruening refers to as our “happy chemicals.” That’s why we feel good when we acquire new things, and especially if we feel that the new purchases boost our status. But does buying bring us lasting happiness? Or love, which many of us associate with ultimate happiness? Alas, the Beatles’ Paul McCartney’s song may be all too true: “Money can’t buy me love”. Can money and more things, in fact, inadvertently bring an increase in marriage problems? Psychology researchers at Brigham Young University and William Paterson University have just released a striking study of materialism and marriage. The article, written by Caroll, Dean, Call and Busby and published in the Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, describes the results of their study of materialistic values in 1700 couples, which is a whoppingly large marriage study. What did the researchers find?
Couples that place a high value on getting and spending find their marriages less satisfying. Those who put least emphasis on materialism tend to enjoy more gratifying marriages.
The study uncovered multiple additional intriguing findings. Here’s a list of several that I found especially interesting.
Spouses who scored high on materialism tended to score high also on narcissism, the tendency to be “all about me.”
I found this a fascinating potential confirmation of my personal theory that narcissism is the next stop down the spectrum from autism to Aspergersand beyond. Folks on the “autistic spectrum” tend to related more comfortably to things than to people. Look at any computer lab and you’ll see many people, primarily male, who prefer interacting with their computer to interacting with friends or family. Narcissists may similarly connect more comfortably with things than with their families. Hence the materialism-narcissism-marriage problems link.
In addition, as quoted by Courtney Hutchinson at abcnews.com, Jason Carroll, a BYU professor of family life in Provo, Utah and the lead author of the study explains, “Our study found that materialism was associated with spouses having lower levels of responsiveness and less emotional maturity.”
Low responsivity to the concerns of a partner is characteristic of people with a narcissistic orientation. Folks who are ‘all about me’ tend to dismiss or argue with their partner’s attempts to voice their concerns. Yet responsivity, that is, willingness to listen seriously and take responsive action, to a partner’s concerns is one of the best indicators of a lasting marriage.
Emotional maturity includes ability to stay in the calm zone as opposed to quickness to anger, another narcissistic trait.
2. Marriage Skill Deficits
The study indicated that spouses who scored high on Materialism tended to score high on habits like blaming, criticizing or complaining that yield unpleasant conflict and relatively low on effective communication skills, relationship satisfaction, and marriage stability.
3. In What Percentage of Couples Are Both Spouses Similarly Materialistic?
To measure materialism the researchers used via self-report surveys that asked “To what extent do you agree with these statements?” The statements included sentences like, “I like to own things to impress people” and “Money can buy happiness.”
In 14.3% of couples, that’s one out of seven, both partners scored themselves as having low levels of materialism. These turn out to be the most fortunate folks in terms of marriage success. Couples in which neither spouse takes all that seriously luxuries that money can buy scored 10 to 15 percent higher in positive marriage communication skills and in enjoying their marriage. In fact, they obtained highest scores in pretty much all of the dimensions of marital quality.
In sharp contrast, in about 20% of the couples, that’s one in five couples, both spouses ranked high on statements indicating they placed a high value on materialism. These couples generally showed lower levels of marriage satisfaction.
I was surprised to see that more couples fell into the jointly materialistic category than into the jointly non-materialistic. That’s sad for their happiness, but probably good for the economy.
4. What About Half and Half Couples?
The finding that most surprised the researchers was about marriage satisfaction in the one-of-each couples. When one spouse was materialistic and the other significantly less so, the marriage was less successful than those couples where both were non-materialistic. That’s no surprise. What was unexpected though was that mixed couples do better in marriage than couples where both scored high on materialism.
A half a couple, that is, a couple that has one spouse with low materialism and high marriage skills, turns out to be better than none.
The researchers had expected the split couples to a have harder time than couples where the values were matched. They assumed that differences on any value, including materialism, would create an area where conflict was likely. Turned out they were wrong.
What matters, it seems, is not so much that there are areas of difference in a marriage. Rather what makes marriages successful are the couples’ skills for talking through their differences. When even one spouse has pretty good talking and listening skills, that’s far better than if neither has them. The non-materialistic spouses who had better partnering skills lifted the level of the marriage for both spouses.
5. Does Money Matter?
No! The study found no correlation between actual wealth and degree of materialism. Some wealthy folks were high on materialism, others quite low. Some folks with more modest incomes were high on materialism and others similarly low.
Other studies have found similar results regarding the importance of money in marriage happiness. Extreme poverty does put additional stresses on marriage, but once couples have at least more or less enough money to cover their basic living expenses, how much money they have beyond that is basically irrelevant to their happiness.
Looks like it’s not how much money a couple has, or even how much they value having lots of fancy things that’s a good or a bad sign. What undermines a marriage is insufficient partnership communication skills.
As an advocate of marriage education, I love this study. Problems emerge for couples who are high in materialism if they are low on marriage communication skills. The good news is that upgrading the skills for collaborative talking together that sustain strong marriages is something any couple can decide to go for.
What I’d love to see next is a study of what happens to materialistic couples once they learn how to do partnership more collaboratively. I’d bet my money on them shifting onto the side of marriage happiness!
Susan Heitler, Ph.D., is a Denverclinical psychologist who specializes in treatment of anxiety, depression, anger, narcissism, parenting challenges, and marital difficulties. An author of multiple books, articles, audio cd’s and videos, Dr. Heitleris best known in the therapy community for having brought understandings of conflict resolution from the legal and business mediation world to the professional literature on psychotherapy. David Decides About Thumbsucking, Dr. Heitler’s first book, has been recommended for over twenty years by children’s dentists to help young children end detrimental sucking habits. From Conflict to Resolution, an innovative conflict-resolution theory of psychopathology and treatment, has strongly influenced the work of many therapists. The Power of Twoand The Power of Two Workbook, and also Dr. Heitler’s website for couples called PowerOfTwoMarriage.com, teach the skills for marriage success.
In addition to her clinical work, Dr. Heitler coaches boards of directors in skills for collaboarative decision-making and, in the world of professional sports, Dr. Heitler serves as mental coach for a men’s doubles tennis team.
Dr. Heitler graduated from Harvard University in 1967, and earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from NYU in 1975.
Awards and Accomplishments
The editors of the master therapist video series Assessment and Treatment of Psychological Disorders selected Dr. Heitler from all the marriage and family therapists in the US to demonstrate the theory and techniques of couple treatment. Her video from this series, The Angry Couple: Conflict Focused Treatment has become a staple in psychologist and marriage counseling training programs.
The editors of the Psychologist Desk Reference, a compendium of therapeutic interventions, selected Dr. Heitler to write the chapter onTreating High Conflict Couples. Other editors of books on counseling theory and techniques have similarly invited her to contribute chapters on her conflict resolution treatment methods.
Dr. Heitler’s 1997 book The Power of Two (New Harbinger), which clarifies the communication and conflict resolution skills that sustain healthy marriages, has been translated for publication in six foreign language editions–in China, Taiwan, Israel, Turkey, Brazil and Poland.
Dr. Heitler has been invited to present workshops on her conflict resolution methods for mediators and lawyers, psychologists, and marriage and family therapists throughout the country. She has been a popular presenter at national professional conferences including AAMFT, APA, SmartMarriages, and SEPI and has lectured internationally in Austria, Australia, Canada, China, Israel, Lebanon, Spain, and the United Arab Emirates.
Dr. Heitler is frequently interviewed in magazines such as Fitness, Men’s Health, Women’s World, and Parenting. Her cases have appeared often in the Ladies Home Journal column “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” She is often interviewed by Denver TV newscasters for her perspectives on psychological aspects of current events.
In May, 2004 Dr. Heitler appeared on the CBS Early Show where anchor Harry Smith introduced her as “the most influential person in my life—my therapist.” He encouraged his viewers similarly to seek therapy when they are emotionally distressed and pre-marital counseling when they are contemplating marriage.
Most recently, Dr. Heitler, three of her adult children and one of their friends were awarded a U.S. government Healthy Marriages Initiative grant to produce interactive games for teaching marriage communication and conflict resolution skills over the internet. Seehttp://poweroftwomarriage.com to experience their fun, low-cost, high-impact methods of teaching the skills for a strong and loving marriage.
Dr. Heitler and her husband of almost 40 years are proud parents of four happily married adult children and are grandparents, thus far, of a a baker’s dozen grandchildren.