What Causes Failed Marriages: Poor Communication, Incompatibility…and Big Engagement Rings?

huge engagement ring
Did a huge engagement ring hurt their marriage? Don't count on it. Getty Images

Want to know if your marriage will result in divorce? A new study can give you some hints. Well, kind of.

Researchers at Emory University surveyed more than 3,000 people about their marriages and found an array of factors that are to varying degrees associated with a higher likelihood of divorce:  more expensive rings, expensive weddings, small weddings (counterintuitively), and not attending church, for starters.

Before you throw out your ostentatious engagement ring, take a breath. Yes, the article led to breathless reports about how to change your wedding around to avoid divorce, but of course that’s not quite the case. What the paper doesn’t necessarily mean is that inviting only 5 people to your wedding is an invitation to disaster. Or that if you decide on an expensive band instead of a DJ for your wedding you’ll suddenly be that much more likely to divorce.

What it really provides is a revealing set of wedding-related correlations (but not causations, she sniffed, pushing up her glasses) to think about.

Consider that a more expensive wedding is in some ways linked to a higher chance of divorce, according to the study. The chart below, from a blog post by computer science and engineering Ph.D. student Randal Olsen about the study, shows that a couple that has a wedding costing $20,000 or more is 46 percent more likely to divorce than a couple that spends $5,000 to $10,000, and that a couple spending $1,000 or less is 53 percent less likely than that $5k to $10k couple.

Wedding cost divorce

Source: Randal Olsen

But there are some big things to keep in mind here. First, not all of these differences are statistically significant. The researches found these relationships to be statistically significant for both genders when couples spent less than $1,000, but only for women in cases where couples spent more than $20,000.

Does that mean an expensive wedding can cause more divorces? That’s not out of the question — as the researchers write, the debt from an expensive wedding could create stress that weakens the marriage. But there are other ways to explain this correlation. Maybe the kind of couple that insists on an expensive venue is also the kind of couple that’s more divorce-prone. Maybe people who enjoy live music are more prone to divorce than people who like DJs.

Likewise, a more expensive engagement ring was associated with a higher chance of divorce in the subsample of men. Maybe the spending is what caused the divorces. But maybe people who cannot propose without a 3-carat diamond are not the best marriage material.

Or consider the big wedding. Counterintuitively (considering the cost data), larger wedding ceremonies are associated with huge declines in the likelihood of divorce.

Divorce huge wedding

Source: Randal Olsen

Maybe inviting friends to your wedding really does reduce the likelihood of divorce —perhaps having lots of attendees reinforces your network of supportive people who will help you through your marital woes. Or couples who are so lovely that lots of people want to attend their wedding are maybe just more marriageable. Or having a big social network is correlated with other things that are correlated with successful marriages — going to college or being older, for example. We just don’t know.

So there are all sorts of reasons to take a few grains of salt with both this study and whatever conclusions you might draw from it. The study is not peer-reviewed. And while it claims to have controlled for “a number of demographic and relationship characteristics,” it never specifies which ones.

The authors of the paper generally avoid making unjustified causal leaps. They do argue that one of their key points is that their paper disproves the wedding-industrial complex’s implication that an expensive wedding makes for a happy marriage. Which is fair. Or maybe there are just lots of complicated factors that determine whether a marriage works.

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