It’s Not You, Honey, It’s the GDP: Why a Bad Economy Is Good for Marriages

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We’ve written before about the upside of down economies: people grow closer. Now comes word of yet another silver lining in the barrage of depressing economic news in recent years: it might be good for marriages. That’s one of the conclusions to be drawn from a recent study by two psychologists, Lisa Diamond, of the University of Utah, and Angela Hicks, of Westminster College. Turns out, spouses who blame the national economy for at least some of their personal financial woes are more likely to be satisfied with their relationships. That makes a lot of sense, on two fronts. First, there’s a lot of research to suggest that the ability to deflect blame makes us feel better about ourselves. That’s likely one reason why mutual-fund investors seem to have an easier time selling losers than do individual stock investors; there’s someone to blame for their loss aside from themselves — a fund manager! But throwing blame at your spouse for financial troubles has a secondary effect that’s not usually present in most mutual-fund transactions. The recipient of your aspersions is sleeping next to you at night, and dumping responsibility for financial troubles on him or her tends to make you like your spouse less, which surely can’t help any assessment of a marriage.

If only there were an easy-to-access scapegoat for our financial troubles. Oh, wait, there is: the economy, which thanks to something called the “availability bias” is quick to come to mind. Availability, which we’ve discussed before, tells us that we’re more likely to recall and use information that’s easily accessible, and few things have been more accessible over the past three or so years than news about how awful the U.S. (and global) economy is. You would expect, then, that the state of the national economy would figure heavily in couples’ appraisals of their own family finances. And that’s what happened.

Working with the National Center for Family & Marriage Research, Diamond and Hicks surveyed 632 U.S. couples about the state of their marriages as well as their finances and the causes of whatever woes they were experiencing. The majority (48%) blamed the economy and their partner, while 42% blamed neither, 7% blamed their partner and the economy, and 3% blamed only their partner. Broadly, Diamond and Hicks found the most satisfied couples were those in which both partners shared some responsibility for their money problems but also laid some blame outside their relationship, specifically on the national economy. That’s the upside of a drumbeat of bad economic news: it’s a steam valve for couples.

Though not always. Interestingly, men tended to report increased relationship satisfaction only when none of the blame for household financial woes was directed at them. Diamond theorizes that societal pressure on men to be breadwinners (even when their wives contribute significant portions of family income) is still such that any blame directed at them — shared or not with anyone (their spouse) or anything (the national economy) — leaves them feeling less satisfied about their relationship. Yet more evidence of the oft cited fragile male ego.