Does Money Make a Difference In How Happy Your Marriage Is?

If you think tying the knot is going to fix all your problems, think again

Updated 06/25/18

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Two heads are usually better than one. (Well, except if you’re making last-minute decisions on floral arrangements. Maybe just leave that to one head.) For some people, getting married is one of the best things that could ever happen to them—and researchers tend to agree about its benefits. They’ve long argued that marriage is linked to financial stability, psychological well-being, and better social support.

A pair of sociologists, however, wondered how socioeconomic status factors into all this—i.e., does marital status positively impact your mental well-being regardless of whether you’re living paycheck to paycheck or own your $5 million dream home? Their findings were published earlier this year in the journal Social Science Research.

The study analyzed data from the Americans' Changing Lives Survey, a national study consisting of interviews over several years with 3,617 adults in the United States ages 24 to 89. For their purposes, the researchers focused on responses from never married, married and newly married adults. In addition to marital status, they also looked at respondents’ reports of depressive symptoms, household income, and marital satisfaction, among other variables.

Unsurprisingly, the study found that married people in general exhibited fewer depressive symptoms, have higher levels of household income, and more financial security than unmarried people. That was particularly true for low-income families. But when researchers looked at couples who were making bank, they realized those benefits weren’t there: Rich, married people were just as—and in some cases, more—depressed as rich, unmarried people.

"For people who are earning above $60,000, they don't get this bump because they already have enough resources," said Dr. Ben Lennox Kail, co-author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at Georgia State University, in a statement. "About 50 percent of the benefit these households earning less than $60,000 per year get from marriage is an increased sense of financial security and self-efficacy, which is probably from the pooling of resources.”

"Also,” Kail continued, “it's interesting to note, at the highest levels of income, the never married fare better in terms of depression than the married. They have fewer symptoms of depression than married people. All of these are subclinical levels of depression, meaning the disease is not severe enough to be clinically referred to as depression, but can nevertheless impact your health and happiness."

By investigating the psychological impact of marriage among people in various economic classes, the study also raises an important question about the effectiveness of federal programming that promotes healthy and stable marriages as a way to address poverty in the U.S. In 2003, former President George W. Bush proposed the Healthy Marriage Initiative to target disadvantaged communities. At the time, social conservatives lauded the project, blaming the “erosion of marriage” for many of the country’s problems.

“Although low-income individuals may benefit psychologically from marriage, especially in the short term, the long-term consequences of marriage must not be ignored,” the study’s authors write. Because couples from low socioeconomic backgrounds are more at risk to divorce—suggesting those improvements in mental health via marriage would be short-lived—the authors write that a better approach to address poverty would be to support education and employment initiatives “so they can not only obtain occupational and community roles that increase social integration and support, but also achieve financial security and reduce stress exposure.”

In other words, getting married is not going to solve all your problems just because you suddenly become a two-income household. If that’s one of the major reasons why you’re tying the knot, you might want to think again.

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