The Ugly Truth About Marriage and Divorce When You’re Poor

If you and your spouse fight about money, you’re not alone. Couples fight about money more than sex, chores, spending time together, or any other topic, as reported by Time from a survey of 1,000 adults.

Unfortunately, a new study reveals another connection between money and a couple’s happiness – or lack thereof. Based on studies’ findings, economists and sociologists have concluded that lower-income adults are more likely to divorce than those with more money.


Last week, The Washington Post examined the crossroad of two topics that too many people consider too taboo to discuss: divorce and being poor. Though the old saying states “money can’t buy happiness,” you could say the same about those struggling to make ends meet. The divorce rate for married, college-educated couples has dropped from 20 percent in the early 1980s to 11 percent today. The divorce rate among lower-income couples (defined as a pair making less than twice the poverty level – thus $30,000 combined income) has remained stagnant at about 17 percent.

According to Jessi Streib, an assistant professor of Sociology at Duke University and author of “The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages,” not only does current economic status play a large factor in marriage, so does a couple’s economic background.

“In researching my book about inter-class couples, I found that the financial stability of the spouses’ childhoods shaped their marriages in many ways, contributing to clashes about leisure time, home maintenance and even how to talk through their feelings,” said Streib. “These pairs were middle class by the time I met them, but their different backgrounds still caused problems.”

Scholars have attributed the` inequality in divorce rates between lower-income couples and those with more money to women’s role in divorces, as two-thirds of all divorces are initiated by women. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, women got divorced at roughly the same rate, regardless of education. In the past few decades, however, women with higher education have become less likely to divorce than those lacking college degrees. Fifty percent of couples that don’t hold college degrees have divorced while only 29 percent of married, college-educated have ever divorced.

Bill Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, theorizes that this has something to do with women’s changing expectations of their partner. “People are looking for a high-intimacy, high-income marriage where both partners contribute, regardless of income bracket,” he said. “Unless you have a good economic base and a certain level of personal maturity, it can be very hard to survive this ideal of modern marriage.”

As the U.S. emerges from the recession, employment levels continue to improve and the economy and wages grow stronger, I hope that couples find happiness with fewer arguments about and subsequent divorces from those fights about money.