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Oct172014

Diamonds Aren’t Forever: Expensive Rings and Weddings May Lead to Relationship Problems

My husband and I got hitched this past June, which I can honestly say was one of the happiest and most transcendent experiences of my life. However, we both agree that whereas the wedding was awesome, the wedding planning process was decidedly not awesome. Navigating the wedding industry can be quite frustrating, in part because of the relentless pressure to spend fantastic amounts of money on anything and everything wedding-related. As a relationships researcher, I was particularly interested in, and baffled by, the rhetoric that many vendors use in order to sell wedding services and products.

Many of the sales pitches boil down to the idea that couples in love should want expensive weddings. Vendors will argue that if you truly love your partner, you should be willing to go to any lengths (at least monetarily) to properly celebrate that love on your “special day”. For example, maybe you want to show your love for your partner by getting a fancy gilded guestbook for your guests to sign, or personally monogrammed hand towels for the reception bathroom. Sometimes the rhetoric even goes so far as to suggest that an expensive wedding guarantees you true love. With a perfectly straight face, some vendors will tell you that your wedding day will “set the tone” for your marriage, and you should be willing to do anything it takes to start your marriage off “on the right foot”. For example, perhaps you should set the right tone by hiring a 20-piece orchestra for your ceremony, or limos to transport all your guests to the reception.

Examples of this sort of advertising can be traced back to the 1940s, when De Beers diamond company launched their infamous “Diamonds are forever” campaign. Indeed, many of the social norms around marriage proposals—such as the arbitrary benchmark of two months’ salary that men should spend on an engagement ring—come from De Beers’ successful advertising efforts. Like the wedding industry more broadly, the diamond industry relies on the premise that spending a great deal of money shows love for your partner and predicts relationship success. This idea is widespread in our culture, likely because it is a marketer’s dream: who wouldn’t pay any price to ensure marital bliss? What’s less clear is how accurate these notions are. To what extent do high levels of spending actually predict marital bliss?

For decades, the idea that spending a fortune on engagement rings and weddings is good for your relationship has gone untested and largely unchallenged. But recently, a pair of economists put De Beers et al. to the test.1 The researchers recruited over 3000 ever-married participants (i.e., people who were either currently married or had been married at some point) to complete an online survey. They asked participants a wide range of questions about their marriage, such as how long they dated before marriage, their age at marriage, their feelings and attitudes at the time of the wedding proposal, whether they had children, and, critically, the costs of their engagement ring and their wedding. Participants who were unable to remember how much their wedding cost were able to report that, rather than provide an inaccurate figure. Participants were also asked about several demographic factors such as education, income, religion, and race, so that the researchers could control for these factors in their analyses. Most importantly, participants were asked about their marital status and marriage duration, so that the researchers could see what factors are associated with marital outcomes.

The results did not lend support to the wedding industry’s mantra. In fact, any reliable associations that the researchers found were in the opposite direction from what marketing would suggest. For example, people who had spent between $2000-4000 on an engagement ring had significantly higher rates of divorce compared to people who spent between $500 and $2000. Similarly, couples who spent less than $1000 on their weddings had significantly lower rates of divorce even compared to people who spent between $5000 and $10,000. People who reported having spent more than $20,000 on their wedding tended to have higher divorce rates compared to those who spent less. Furthermore, any cases where spending more was associated with better relationship outcomes were explained by demographic factors like having a high income. In other words, it wasn’t that spending more made things better. Other factors were responsible.

It gets worse. The researchers found that high levels of wedding-related spending—for example, having a wedding that cost more than $20,000—was associated with stress over wedding-related debt. The researchers posit that this stress may help to account for some of the negative associations between high spending and marital outcomes. Couples spend money on their wedding that they don’t have, which later puts a strain on their marriage when they have trouble paying off the resulting debt.

These results suggest that if anything, high levels of wedding-related spending have a negative effect on marriage, not a positive one. Of course, this study is cross-sectional, meaning that the researchers did not follow people over time. It would be great to see a longitudinal study where newlyweds first report on their engagement ring and wedding spending, and are then followed over time to see who splits up.

However, the researchers did make a commendable effort to rule out alternative explanations for their results. For example, a problem with cross-sectional studies is that people don’t always have a good memory of events that took place years ago (what psychologists call a “retrospective bias”). To help account for this, the researchers also tested their effects among only the people who were married after 2008. If biased reporting produced the effects, this subsample of participants, who presumably had a better recollection of how much they actually spent, should produce weaker findings. But instead, the researchers obtained the same results. The very large and relatively representative sample also lend credibility to their findings: 3000 participants is a lot of participants.

I think the takeaway message here is that the wedding industry’s primary objective is to make money. They are not in the business of doling out useful relationship advice. So for a couple trying to plan their wedding, it is probably wise to take the wedding industry’s messages with a very large grain of salt. Your chances at marital bliss are not riding on whether or not you get personalized miniature Champaign bottles for your guests to bring home with them, or whether the bride gets a deluxe skin treatment every month for a year leading up to the wedding. The amount of money you spend on your wedding is not an indication of how much you love your partner, nor is it a way to improve your marriage’s future prospects, no matter what the bridal magazines have to say about it.

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1Francis, A. M., & Mialon, H. M. (2014). ‘A diamond is forever’ and other fairy tales: The relationship between wedding expenses and marriage duration. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2501480 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2501480.

Samantha Joel - Science of Relationships articles
Samantha's research examines how people make decisions about their romantic relationships. For example, what sort of factors do people take into consideration when they try to decide whether to pursue a potential date, invest in a new relationship, or break up with a romantic partner?

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Reader Comments (1)

Interesting study.

Have the result been adjusted for income? I would suspect that many who can't afford a fancy wedding might not be able to afford a divorce or living by themselves. Perhaps high income individuals can afford a divorce and have more attractive alternative mating options after separations? I also notice a lot of quick and cheap weddings due to unplanned pregnancy. Perhaps getting married because of a baby would lead to more problems?

It would be interesting to see the cost of wedding against the couples' incomes. Maybe it doesn't matter at all.

October 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteradora
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