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Why wealthy people may be less successful in love

A study found rich people are less likely than poorer people to exhibit flexibility and empathy in relationships.
by Nicole Spector /
Image: Wedding rings
A study finds couples may know less about how to manage knowledge and figure out a solution when times get tough.Jasmin Awad / EyeEm / Getty Images/EyeEm
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Money trouble is commonly cited as one of the major reasons people break up; a study by LearnVest found that nearly on in four (24 percent) of Americans have split with a partner because of financial issues. It would appear that the weight of debt and lack of a safety net are particularly problematic, with the study noting that the top financial goals people had for their significant others were to pay down debt (51 percent) and build up savings (44 percent).

As one half of a couple familiar with living paycheck to paycheck, I find myself just a tad envious of wealthy married folks. I know they still have problems like all couples, but I imagine they’re not arguing about whose turn it is to pay the car bill or how they will fund their wedding or whether they can afford to raise kids in this town. I’ve long understood that while money can’t buy you love, it can buy you choice to some extent, and what a blessing that must be in a relationship. But a new study is prompting me to back up a bit and look at the big picture. The research, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggests that people in higher social classes have a lesser tendency toward “wise reasoning” than those in lower ranks, which could be a deal breaker in a relationship.

Wise Reasoning Is More Than Knowledge; It’s Open-Mindedness and Empathy

So what exactly is wise reasoning? Igor Grossmann, the research’s co-author and an associate professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo, tells NBC News BETTER that wise reasoning is “more about how to manage knowledge and how to figure out a solution.” It entails open-mindedness, intellectual humility, flexibility and empathy, Grossman says, adding that ultimately, “it’s a collection of strategies that help you deal with uncertain situations in contrast to situations that are well-defined.”

Across two in-depth studies (one of which assessed participants’ views on a Dear Abby letter), Grossman and his team concluded that upper-class folks are “associated with a lower propensity of reasoning wisely in interpersonal situations.” In other words, rich people are less likely than poorer people to exhibit flexibility, empathy and all the other traits that make up wise reason when it comes to relationship.

Privilege Can Cultivate a Sense of Entitlement and Rigidity

I asked a number of experts including psychologists and relationship coaches whether they have found that well-off folks are less demonstrative of wise reasoning. I was surprised by just how definitive their responses were.

“Although personality traits and challenges cross all socioeconomic barriers, I do see lower levels of ‘wise reasoning style’ in the upper-class and super wealthy population,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, a psychotherapist who specializes in relationships. “The reasons for this can be attributed to a particular type of narcissism in the stratospherically rich who care more about achievements, status and how they are viewed by others rather than relationships and family. Often, these folks lack accountability and self-examination skills, which is why they consistently blame others. Privilege has endowed them with a sense of entitlement. So, interpersonally these people can be rigid, [which] in psychology is thought of as pathology; flexibility is healthy.”

Wealth May Bring ‘Yes’ People and Communication Problems

Professional matchmaker Susan Trombetti asserts that she doesn’t need a study to show her that “rich people are less reasonable in relationships.” She sees it all the time.

“Rich people reason that they can have the world at their fingertips and whatever they want, but relationships are intangible and not easily measured,” says Trombetti. “Moreover, the richer you are, the more you are surrounded by ‘yes’ people dependent on you financially and less likely to tell you no, or that you have irrational behavior.”

Folks with less money may have plenty of friends and family offering advice, but that’s quite different from having people cheering you on because of their monetary interest in you. It’s easy to imagine how the latter could cloud your judgment and cause communication problems at home.

More Money, More Options

As I noted earlier, wealthy people have more choice, but that’s not necessarily a good thing — not when you’re committing to someone for the long haul.

“The more options one has the less [issues] they will put up with,” says Kevin Darné, a dating coach and the author of My Cat Won't Bark! (A Relationship Epiphany). “Oftentimes rich people are quick to realize when something isn't working out and therefore they make decisive decisions sooner. [They] do not believe it's reasonable to keep beating their head against the wall in an attempt to change someone.”

Rachel DeAlto, relationship expert and coach adds: “In my experience coaching and matchmaking, the more affluent the client, there is less fear of a relationship ending because they find [their partner] easily replaceable. The more elite the circle, typically the more rigid the viewpoint. There is also a pack mentality that affects compassion. There is power in money and status, and sadly I’ve seen it do some damage to communications.”

Again, it comes back to flexibility, a cornerstone of wise reasoning. If you’re less likely to bend or see the situation from the other person’s perspective, you’re more likely to bolt (or have your partner bolt). Especially when you feel you can easily scoop up an ostensibly better partner.

This Doesn’t Mean That We Can’t All Be Happy In Love

One thing this study does not wish to promote, Grossman says, is the idea that rich people are naturally doomed in love. What the study does indicate, however, is that upper class folk tend to be less likely to adapt to situations of adversity or unexpected outcomes, while people in lower power positions are more accustomed to uncertainty and often better prepared to deal with conflict.

Being able to ride out the storm, compromise and embrace the unforeseen can come in pretty handy in a partnership, and fortunately, it’s something anyone can learn, even the richest of the rich. But you’ll have to check your power and your privilege at the door. As for the less well-off? Well, maybe we should consider the small but critical ways in which we might just have it easier, after all.

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