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Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Expensive Wedding, Quick Divorce?

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

As the average American wedding gets ever-more expensive, the American couple may well ask themselves: Is it worth it?

As it turns out, the answer to that question is a resounding no. Not only is it not worth it, but new research out of Emory University suggests an interesting association between how much young adults spend on their wedding and related expenses, and later risk of marital dissolution.

By way of providing background for their inquiry, the Emory researchers first tell readers that in America, “the average wedding cost was $29,858 in 2013.” “The wedding industry,” they continue, “has gown substantially throughout the twentieth century in part due to the rise of consumerism and industry efforts to commodify love and romance.” The more you invest in the wedding, advertisers say, the happier your marriage will be. And the cost has continued to rise. For example, “[p]rior to World War II, in Western countries, only 10% of engagement rings contained a diamond. By the end of the century, about 80% did.” But the researchers wonder about the relationship between ever-higher expenditures and marital duration, a relationship they say has never been rigorously examined. 

To investigate this relationship, the researchers conducted an online survey, which contained roughly 40 questions seeking information about marital status, marital duration, children, length of time dating, honeymoon, engagement ring and wedding expenses, wedding attendance, and related factors. The survey was conducted in July and August of 2014, and the final sample size was 3,151 respondents. The researchers also controlled for a number of confounding factors, including the ability of their respondents to accurately remember the requested information.

The findings are startling, and suggest that simplifying the wedding ritual should perhaps be in more young Americans’ futures. Specifically, the researchers found that “in the sample of men, spending between $2,000 and $4,000 on an engagement ring is associated with a 1.3 times greater hazard of divorce as compared to spending between $500 and $2,000.” The researchers discovered a similar trend when it comes to wedding expenses. “Furthermore, spending $1,000 or less on the wedding is significantly associated with a decrease in the hazard of divorce in the sample of all persons and in the sample of men, and spending $20,000 or more on the wedding is associated with an increase in the hazard of divorce in the sample of women.” They continue, “In particular, as compared with spending between $5,000 and $10,000 on the wedding, spending less than $1,000 is associated with half the hazard of divorce in the sample of men, and spending $20,000 or more is associated with 1.6 times the hazard of divorce in the sample of women.” 

The researchers note some other “interesting results” that emerged in their study. Notably, “relatively high household income, regularly attending religious services, having a child with one’s partner, relatively high wedding attendance, and going on a honeymoon are all significantly associated with a lower hazard of divorce.” They summarize that the type of wedding that may be most likely to lead to a long marriage is “relatively inexpensive but . . . high in attendance.” The researchers also examine a possible relationship between wedding-debt stress and later marital dissolution, and find that “spending less than $1,000 on the wedding is associated with an 82% to 93% decease in the odds of reporting being stressed about wedding-related debt relative to spending between $5,000 and $10,000.” If such expenses are a part of the financial stress that has already been shown to have a negative impact on marital duration, then it is reasonable to suggest that expensive weddings may contribute to divorce through the mechanism of financial stress.

The researchers close by stating, “Overall, our findings provide little evidence to support the validity of the wedding industry’s general message that connects expensive weddings with positive marital outcomes.” The researchers do not probe why this might be so (other than the possibility of debt), but the thoughtful reader might suspect that those couples more committed to the marriage, rather than the wedding, may be those who “make it” in the long term.

(Andrew Francis-Tan and Hugo M. Mialon, “‘A Diamond is Forever’ and Other Fairy Tales: The Relationship Between Wedding Expenses and Marriage Duration,” Economic Inquiry 53.4 [October 2015]: 1,919-30.)