Relationships suffer when partners base self-worth on money

February 23, 2021

Money can be toxic to relationships. (Pixabay/Amarpreet Singh)

People who base their self-esteem on financial success report clashing with their romantic partners more often, according to new research, suggesting that “financially contingent self-worth” can play a uniquely damaging role in relationships, over and above any economic strain.

According to an article published Feb. 8 in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, one partner’s reliance on money for self-esteem could lead to negative consequences not only for that individual, but also for their relationship — from both partners' perspectives.

The research sheds new light on how one’s attitude toward money, rather than economic pressure itself, can strain romantic partnerships in crucial ways, according to authors Deborah Ward, Lora Park, Courtney Walsh, Kristin Naragon-Gainey, Elaine Paravati and Ashley Whillans.

"Financially contingent self-worth" is one of seven domains on the Contingencies of Self-Worth Scale, which was developed in 2003 to assess areas psychologists believed could serve as external anchors for individuals’ self-esteem.

“People with higher financially contingent self-worth consistently report perceiving more financial conflicts with their partner,” Ward told The Academic Times, noting that individuals who are fixated on their financial status are naturally more likely to run into real or perceived money disputes with their partners and others in their lives.

The researchers couldn’t say for sure whether such conflicts were actually playing out between partners in the couples they studied, she added, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t having a very real impact on the way each person viewed the quality of the relationship.

“Perceptions are reality, and those perceptions are linked to lower relationship satisfaction,” she said, even when people in the relationship aren't facing actual economic pressures.

Survey data showed that people who scored highly on a scale measuring financially contingent self-worth felt more disconnected from others and said they had more arguments with their partners, Ward said, suggesting that for this group, money itself wasn’t driving their relationship troubles.

“Obviously, people want money for very practical reasons, but we wondered if there was [also] a self-esteem component” driving some individuals to pursue financial gains, she added.

To investigate whether that orientation toward money leaves some couples vulnerable to negative outcomes, the researchers ran a series of studies designed to probe the link between financially contingent self-worth and perceived financial conflicts, partner support and overall relationship satisfaction.

They first used data collected from a survey of 167 participants who were either married or in a “married-like relationship,” finding that individuals who scored highly on the "financially contingent self-worth" scale reported more frequent financial conflicts with their partners. 

Those conflicts in turn were correlated with lower levels of relationship satisfaction, a link which remained statistically significant even after controlling for participants’ income, economic pressures and levels of “materialism,” a tendency to value “things” rather than money itself.

According to the researchers, this preliminary study lent support to the “vulnerability hypothesis,” which predicts that rooting self-worth in financial success is connected to having more financial conflicts with one’s romantic partner — a dynamic related to lower levels of relationship satisfaction and feelings of reduced support from one’s partner.

To follow up their initial results, they then studied how one partner’s financially contingent self-worth impacted the other partner’s perceptions and experiences. The researchers discovered that study participants who reported more financial conflicts in their relationship had partners who said they were less satisfied with the relationship, evidence that people who base their self-worth on money could be harming their relationships in the eyes of their partners.

The research team also conducted a six-week study designed so that they could observe week-by-week changes in financially contingent self-worth alongside changing levels of financial conflict, partner support and relationship satisfaction. In weeks where participants reported higher-than-usual financially contingent self-worth, they also reported more financial conflicts with their partners and less support from them.

Finally, they used a separate experiment to study how manipulating a person’s expectations surrounding the benefits of financial success impacted their financially contingent self-worth, responses to conflict situations about money and relationship outcomes. 

People who were led to expect many benefits from financial success were likelier to root their self-esteem in that domain, the researchers found; those people were also likelier to perceive conflict with and decreased support from their partners when faced with “ambiguous” financial scenarios.

“Basing self-worth on financial success was not directly tied to relationship outcomes, but was indirectly related via financially-related conflict responses,” the authors wrote.

While the researchers didn’t establish that basing self-esteem on money directly causes more financial conflicts with romantic partners or leads to other harmful relationship outcomes, Ward said, their findings suggest that financially contingent self-worth is related to negative interpersonal consequences.

The results also point to the drawbacks of rooting one’s self-esteem in any particular external domain where it’s always under threat.

“The way to reduce the negative implications of contingencies of self-worth is to just not link yourself [so deeply] to these different areas,” Ward said, noting that people who can’t decouple their self-esteem from external sources will see themselves “constantly pushed around” by their successes and failures.

The article “For the love of money: The role of financially contingent self-worth in romantic relationships,” published on Feb. 8 in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, was co-authored by Deborah E. Ward, SUNY Buffalo; Lora E. Park, SUNY Buffalo; Courtney M. Walsh, The University of Texas at Austin; Kristin Naragon-Gainey, The University of Western Australia; Elaine Paravati, SUNY Buffalo; Ashley V. Whillans, Harvard Business School.

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