Academic journal article Family Relations

Debt Change and Marital Satisfaction Change in Recently Married Couples*

Academic journal article Family Relations

Debt Change and Marital Satisfaction Change in Recently Married Couples*

Article excerpt

Abstract:

Although recently married couples report debt as one of their top concerns, research has not measured how debt changes relate to changes in their marital satisfaction. Further, the mechanisms that link debt and marital satisfaction are unknown. Findings using the National Survey of Families and Households (N = 1,078 couples) demonstrated that consumer debt changes predicted recently married couples' marital satisfaction changes. Changes in variables associated with couples achieving their marital expectations (e.g., spending time together, arguing about finances) partially explained these findings. Changes in consumer debt negatively predicted couples' time together and positively predicted arguments over money, which in turn were both associated with declines in marital satisfaction.

Key Words: debt, marital satisfaction, marriage, newlyweds.

Household debt use has skyrocketed in the United States. For example, outstanding household consumer credit in the United States doubled from 1.2 trillion dollars in 1997 to 2.4 trillion dollars in 2006 (Federal Reserve Board, 1997, 2007). Further, the average American household has consumer debt equal to 20% of their yearly income (Maki, 2000). A group that often has to deal with high levels of debt is recently married couples. These couples often assume debt as they marry and establish their new household (Wilkie, 1994). Further, recently married couples may have to address debt brought into the marriage by one or both spouses.

High debt levels may relate to recently married couples' marital quality. Indeed, debt predicts increases in marital conflict, and newlyweds rated debt as their second highest marital concern in a recent survey (Conger, Ge, & Lorenz, 1994; Dew, 2007b; Schramm, Marshall, Harris, & Lee, 2005). The purpose of this study was to test a conceptual model of debt and recently married couples' marital quality. The model tests whether changes in recendy married couples' debt predict changes in marital satisfaction. Previous studies linking debt and marital conflict used only static measures of debt. Recently married couples' debt levels are not static, though; they frequently assume large amounts of consumer debt or a mortgage, or both (Wilkie, 1994).

This study also examined the mechanisms that link debt and marital satisfaction changes. Many studies have treated debt as an economic stressor. Yet, the relationship between debt and marital satisfaction is probably more complex. For example, debt has been shown to predict marital conflict even after controlling for economic pressure (Dew, 2007b). Thus, debt may relate to marital outcomes beyond the economic stress it creates. This study used recently married couples in the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH) (N = 1,078 couples) to evaluate these questions.

Theoretical Perspective

Social exchange theory asserts that relationship satisfaction rises or falls as individuals compare the benefits and costs of the relationship with their expectations (Nye, 1979; Thibault & Kelley, 1959). Relationship satisfaction results when the cost/benefit assessment meets or exceeds relationship expectations. Conversely, relationship dissatisfaction results when relationship outcomes fail to meet expectations. Over time, as the relationship benefits, costs, and expectations change, individuals' relationship satisfaction may change (Nye, 1982). Thus, debt changes may predict recently married couples' marital satisfaction changes by making it difficult for spouses to meet their marital expectations. Figure 1 summarizes the conceptual model advanced in the present study and the hypodiesized relationships among the constructs of interest.

As indicated in Figure 1, assuming and servicing consumer debt or student debt predicts more work hours, less time with one's spouse, more conflict over money, and an increased perception of financial unfairness to oneself. …

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