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May 6, 2009 — Couples living together face dozens of spending decisions every week. Should we eat out tonight? Whose turn to pay? Should we hire a lawnmower or a house cleaner, or skip both to pay for premium cable? If there are children from previous relationships, questions about paying for toys, tutoring or even child support add another layer of complications.
Such decisions might seem less important than arguments about sex or the amount of time you're spending together, but financial disagreements turn out to be the only arguments that increase the likelihood that a cohabiting couple will break up, according to new research from University of Virginia sociologist Jeff Dew.
To investigate what factors might predict breakups among cohabiting couples, Dew looked at data from the National Survey of Families and Households, a representative longitudinal survey of more than 10,000 people collected twice, first in the late 1980s and followed up in the early 1990s, with a subsample of 483 cohabiting individuals who participated both times.
The only two things that predicted a breakup were the frequency that they fought over money, and whether they felt that money was being handled unfairly in the relationship, Dew found. Cohabiting couples fought about money more frequently than married couples, and when cohabiting individuals felt that money was being handled unfairly, they were 70 percent more likely to break up than cohabiting couples who didn't feel that way.
Fighting about sex, housework or spending time together did not predict breakups, said Dew, who presented his research May 1 at a demography conference of the Population Association of America. The research has not yet been submitted for publication.
"Disagreements about chores and sex don't seem to be tapping into the same powerful issues as money," Dew said, speculating that the financial arguments boil down to discord over the balance of decision-making power in the relationship.
Couples face an unrelenting stream of spending decisions, many of which are recurring, difficult to resolve and may expose counterproductive conflict response tendencies, he said.
"They can figure out who takes out the garbage or who makes the bed, but it seems that they have a hard time deciding the financial issues," he said. "These are thornier issues to resolve."
Preliminary data suggest that money issues are a bigger problem for cohabiting couples than for married couples, said Dew, a sociology postdoctoral research associate in the College of Arts & Sciences. When married individuals feel that money is being handled unfairly, their odds of divorcing increase, but only by 25 percent, compared with 70 percent for cohabitors.
The tendency of American couples to live together outside of marriage has been on the rise for many years. The prospect of paying one mortgage or rent check rather than two is undoubtedly an incentive for some, but differing evaluations of how to equitably split the expenses can be a potential minefield. The current recession is presumably increasing the pressure on some couples to live together, while also ratcheting up the stresses related to making ends meet.
However, there has been very little research on financial issues among cohabiting couples or how money and other issues relate to relationship stability, Dew said.
Compared to married couples, cohabiting couples tend to be less financially intertwined and more concerned about fairly sharing the costs of the relationship, he said.
Seventy-five percent to 80 percent of married couples pool their incomes, which Dew said "kind of blurs whose money is paying for what," but only about 50 percent of cohabiting couples do.
Cohabiting couples also seem to have more exacting expectations of fairness than married couples, Dew said. Cohabiting couples are more likely to have two working people, and they are least likely to split up when both partners work and earn similar incomes.
In contrast, the married couples least likely to divorce are those in which the wife doesn't have a job outside the home..
Dew plans to further examine what factors among cohabitors – such as race, sex, age or type of employment – are associated with feelings of financial unfairness.