According to new research, people who base their self-worth on how much money they have report more financial conflict within their romantic relationships, and in turn, lower relationship satisfaction. The study, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, further found that the effect held regardless of a person’s financial status or level of economic stress.
Money problems are one of the most common sources of strain within romantic relationships. While studies have revealed that couples experiencing financial hardship are more likely to fight over money issues, it is also evident that couples can experience financial conflict even without any economic stressors present.
Study authors Deborah E. Ward and her team proposed that another predictor of financial conflict within relationships might be an individual’s tendency to base their self-esteem on their monetary success — what scholars call financially contingent self-worth.
“As an undergraduate student, I read a paper titled ‘The Costly Pursuit of Self-Esteem’ by Jennifer Crocker and Lora Park and became fascinated with the concept of domains of contingent self-worth. This refers to the idea that people differ in the areas on which they base their sense of personal worth and value (e.g., some might stake their self-worth on academic success while others do so on physical appearance),” explained Ward, who is now an assistant professor of psychology at Saginaw Valley State University.
“When I decided to apply for Ph.D. programs in Social Psychology, I knew I wanted to work with the researchers who studied this topic and ultimately wound up with Lora Park at the University at Buffalo. My first project with Lora was on identifying whether some people base their self-worth on financial success (Park, Ward, & Naragon-Gainey, 2017). During this project, we noticed consistent associations between basing self worth on finances and feeling less related and connected to other people. This paper represented an effort to find out why these associations might exist.”
Ward and her colleagues proposed that paying more attention to finances means paying less attention to the needs of one’s partner, experiencing more financial conflicts, and having a lower quality relationship.
An initial study questioned a sample of couples who were in committed relationships. Both partners reported how often they get into disagreements with their partner over financial matters, how satisfied they are within their relationship, and whether they had experienced financial hardship in the past six months. They also completed a scale assessing the extent that they base their self-worth on their financial success.
The researchers found that respondents whose self-worth was more strongly tied to their finances reported more financial disagreement with their partners, and in turn, reduced satisfaction within their relationships. Importantly, this effect held even after controlling for participants’ household income, economic hardships, and material values. Moreover, there appeared to be cross-over effects — those who reported more financial conflict within their relationship had partners with lower relationship satisfaction.
Next, a diary study had adults in committed relationships fill out a relationship questionnaire once a week for six weeks. Not only did the researchers find within-person fluctuations in Financial CSW, but they found that these fluctuations were tied to changes in relationship outcomes. When a participant based their self-worth on their finances more than usual in a given week, they also reported experiencing more financial disagreements with their partner than usual and feeling less supported by their partner.
“It’s not the case that liking, valuing, or wanting to have money and/or financial success is a bad thing. It’s when a person views financial success as a core component of what makes them a good or worthwhile person that can open them up to vulnerabilities (e.g., feeling pressures to achieve this financial success that may disrupt personal relationships),” Ward explained to PsyPost.
A final study further supported the results thus far, this time using an experimental manipulation designed to boost financially contingent self-worth. Participants were assigned to either read a news article proclaiming the benefits of financial success or to read an article proclaiming that financial success has no bearing on quality of life.
Participants who read the article sharing the benefits of having money reported higher financially contingent self-worth compared to those who read the alternative article. They were also more likely to choose hostile responses to hypothetical financial scenarios involving their partner (e.g., saying they would argue with their partner over budget concerns) and more likely to believe they would feel less satisfied with their relationship and less supported by their partners in these situations.
Ward and her colleagues say their findings show that the extent that a person’s self-esteem is contingent on their financial success is uniquely related to the degree of financial conflict they will experience with their partner — regardless of their income or financial stress.
“People often ask, ‘how can we change what we base our self-worth on?’ The process of how we come to base our self-worth in certain domains is not well-understood but we do have data suggesting people are more likely to base their self-worth on financial success when they believe there are benefits to having financial success,” Ward said. “Thus, what we base our self-worth on may change over time simply as a product of new experiences (e.g., coming to believe new things are important or valuable).”
“Instead of focusing on changing what we base our self-worth on, the focus should instead be on connecting our activities to goals that transcend ourselves, connect us to other people, and allow us to contribute to broader society. In other words, we should ideally decouple our actions from the goal to improve our own sense of self-worth or self-esteem. Of course, this is not exactly an easy thing to do!”
But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“This is a correlational study, so we cannot definitively say that having financially contingent self-worth causes people to have more financial conflicts with their relationship partners. For example, it could instead be that having more financial conflicts leads people to believe that having more money would improve their relationship problems, which could increase their tendency to base self-worth on money.”
“What we can say is that we see a consistent association between having financially contingent self-worth and perceiving greater financial-related conflicts in one’s relationship. I have a number of study ideas that may help us understand the direction of this association better, so stay tuned!”
The study, “For the love of money: The role of financially contingent self-worth in romantic relationships”, was authored by Deborah E. Ward, Lora E. Park, Courtney M. Walsh, Kristin Naragon-Gainey, Elaine Paravati, and Ashley V. Whillans.