The more a couple spends on their wedding and engagement ring, the less likely they are to stay together, according to a new study out of Emory University aptly entitled ” ‘A Diamond is Forever’ and Other Fairy Tales: the Relationship Between Wedding Expenses and Marriage Duration.”
De Beers famous slogan “A Diamond is Forever” was coined in the late 1930s, when only 10% of engagement rings (in the Western world) held a diamond. The campaign linking the dazzling, durable gemstones to the promise of marital stability became the most successful advertising slogan of the century: by 1999, over 80% of engagement rings contained a diamond.
The diamond engagement ring is just one example of the flurry of spending that surrounds marriage. We’re all familiar with the industry that sprang up to capture those dollars. These researchers examined the relationship between wedding expenses and marriage duration.
It’s no surprise that an expensive fairy-tale wedding does not contribute to a marriage’s long-term success, but I was surprised that relatively high wedding expenses negatively correlated with marital duration. Relatively high spending on an engagement ring likewise is inversely related to the length of the marriage.
In hard numbers, they found that spending $2,000 or more on the engagement ring, or $20,000 or more on the wedding, is significantly associated with a higher rate of divorce. (Among the female survey respondents, the rate of divorce was 3.5 times higher for women who spent $20,000 on their wedding vs. couples who spent $5,000-$10,000.)
(For comparison’s sake, The Knot says the average couple now spends $28,858.)
Spending less than $1000 on the wedding significantly decreased the divorce rate, although inexpensive isn’t always better: spending less than $500 on the engagement ring was associated with an increase in women’s divorce rates.
Of course, a study like this quantifies correlation, not causation, and we can only speculate about the “why.”
According to the recent MMD reader survey, a whopping 85% of you are married. You’ve already made these choices. (I’d love to hear what they were, incidentally.)
But I think it’s still worth speculating about causation, for the singles and the married among you.
The study also found that spending correlated with an 82 to 93% decrease in the odds of being “stressed-out about wedding related debt” compared to couples who spent $5,000-10,000. It’s been well-documented that financial stress is a significant factor in divorce rates, and stress resulting from heavy wedding spending is certainly one reason for the negative correlation.
But there’s more, and it’s not about the money.
The study also found two significant factors correlated with decreased rates of divorce: couples who had a relatively high number of guests at their weddings and couples who went on a honeymoon (though it didn’t matter how much or little it cost) were much more likely to stay together.
We’re in a stage of life where we go to a lot of weddings. We’ve been to lavish affairs, the sort that skew The Knot’s average upward: country club events with hundreds of guests, open bars, and sit-down dinners.
We’ve also been to potluck celebrations that were done on a budget, but still must have come in over the study’s $1,000 limit for significant divorce prevention, despite the fact that at several of these events we personally—as friends of the bride and groom—made Costco runs for cheese tray goodies, bound up farmers’ market flowers into bouquets, and baked wedding day brownies for the reception on various couples’ wedding mornings.
Based on the data and our (possibly misleading) personal experience, I’m going to speculate about three key factors: financial stress, priorities, and community.
Financial stress is bad for relationships, period. There are amazing stories of couples who struggled through financial crisis only to emerge stronger on the other side: they are amazing because they are rare. If debt often causes stress, and expensive weddings are often financed, then there’s a Latin phrase that says it’s not going to end well.
In relationships as in the rest of life: priorities matter. I’m fascinated by the study’s finding that there’s a sweet spot for engagement ring spending: an expensive ring predicts a short marriage, but so does a gumball-machine quality one (or no ring at all). The marriage isn’t about the ring, but human nature is to spend our money on the things we care about. The purchase of a ring speaks to our good intentions; the purchase of an affordable one speaks to wisdom.
Likewise, marriages that last begin with honeymoons, because the couples prioritize taking the time for themselves and their new relationship—whether it’s for a month or more or just for a night. It’s not the trip itself that’s important. I know couples who have been married decades who honeymooned in Europe; I know couples who have been married for just as long who honeymooned at the local state park, and just for a night or two.
Finally, the people who join us on the journey matter. The study found that successful marriages have relatively large numbers of wedding guests. I would like to think its because couples who have a solid future ahead of them deliberately chose to make their family (and they would have family, be they biological, borrowed, or otherwise appropriated) and their friends (and they would have friends) a part of their special day.
They would believe the day was special enough to include the people they loved, and they would have people they loved to include in their special day. Marriages are private affairs, but they’re not conducted in isolation. People require friendship and support and community in all their relationships; marriage is no exception.
Will and I have been married for fourteen years. According to the study, we’re not in the sweet spot, and we can’t do anything about that. But what we can do is focus, every day, on the things we have control over: our finances. Our priorities. And our support network.
Money is just a tool; these are the things that lie beneath the surface.
I’d love to hear your thoughtful commentary about weddings and engagement rings, lavish affairs and potluck gatherings, and the finances/priorities/community trio in comments.
Recommended reading: The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan weaves together stories of four unique marriages, plus the true story of the single woman who created the De Beers’ “A Diamond is Forever” campaign. Laura Vanderkam’s All the Money in the World examines how we can thoughtfully use money as a tool to serve our greater purposes. My favorite chapter is the first, entitled “What Else Could That Ring Buy?”, and I thought of it as I read through each and every page of the Emory University study cited above.