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Are holiday weddings a higher divorce risk?

Leila Martin

Posted on December 12, 2017

Leila Martin writes about personal finance and business-to-business issues.
Headshot of young man staring up at snow

To maximize your chances for a lasting marriage and financial wellness, you may want to avoid getting married on a holiday.

A study at the University of Melbourne points to weddings held on Valentine’s Day or numerically “special” dates carrying a much higher incidence of divorce.1 Couples who want to avoid the significant emotional and financial upheaval of a divorce may wish to steer clear of holiday weddings, but it begs the questions: What’s behind the higher divorce risk? What’s so significant about special dates?

“It may be that focusing on a special date can overtake the thought process of whether you actually want to spend the rest of your life with this person,” said Galena Rhoades, clinical psychologist and research associate professor at the University of Denver, in an interview. “It may be that the special date creates inertia toward a wedding that’s less about the relationship and more about the date.”

Is it the wedding date … or the relationship?

Special-date weddings appear at least 11 percent more risky than ordinary-date weddings, according to the Melbourne study, which found that the probability of divorce was 11 percent higher for Valentine’s Day weddings, 13 percent higher for sequence-date weddings (like 12/13/14), and 18 percent higher for same-number-date weddings (like 9/9/99).

However, the wedding date is only a single factor among many influences.

The study accounted for several elements that may help indicate whether a marriage will last, such as the ages of the marrying couple, how much they have in common, whether they have children, whether they’ve lived together prior to being married, and whether they’ve been married before. It also looked at education levels and the cost and attendance of wedding ceremonies.

Couples in the Melbourne study who chose special-date weddings tended to have a number of factors in common including less education, existing children in the house, one or both partners remarrying, and, perhaps most telling, fewer similarities between the two getting married. That these factors existed before marrying may suggest that the special date is not the cause but a symptom, and other factors — like why the couple got married in the first place — merit a closer look.

A person’s narrative can have a great deal of power over what happens to his or her marriage. “The story you tell yourself about why you married in the first place is important,” said Rhoades. “It’s harder to stay together if, looking back, it turns out that the main reason you got married was so you could have the wedding on a ‘special’ date.”

Changing attitudes toward courtship in general may also have something to do with whether marriages last, regardless of the date on which they happen.

Rhoades points out that there are myriad options these days in how relationships unfold. Without clear courtship rules in place, it’s easier than ever to “slide” into things that are actually huge relationship milestones. Things like moving in together, combining finances, or getting married “just sort of happen” without the couple sitting down and working through any decision process together. (Related: Money questions before moving in together)

“Some people slide into financial entanglements early on, like loaning money or paying for a child’s preschool tuition, without knowing what it means,” said Rhoades. “Some people may end up getting married not because they’ve decided they want to spend the rest of their life with this person, but because it’s easier to stay together than it is to break up.”

But breakups do happen, and while divorce is a highly emotional process, it also carries significant financial implications.

Financial effects of divorce

“The biggest pitfall I see with people facing divorce,” said Michael Briggs, a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst® professional with Horizon Investment Management Group , in an interview, “is that they don’t have a solid understanding of what things cost.”

Briggs points out that divorce may mean paying for two lives for a while, so couples should have a realistic idea of what life will look like once the divorce is final and should make a budget as soon as possible to ensure that the settlement is appropriate for both parties. (Learn more: Divorce and life insurance)

Covering immediate expenses like rent, electricity, heat, and other bills in an apartment while also still paying for them in the house you haven’t sold yet, for example, can be costly. Anyone who was on their spouse’s health insurance plan will need to find and pay for insurance out of pocket.

Alimony and, if applicable, child support also need to be considered. “The child support budget should factor in the kids’ activities, like dance, hockey, or horseback riding,” said Briggs. “Those things can cause a huge strain on the budget if they weren’t accounted for during the settlement.”

Taxes are also a consideration, especially when it comes to splitting property.

“Child support and alimony can be adjusted over time,” said Briggs, “but with property division you only get one shot, so you have to consider the long-term tax implications and not just who gets what right now.”

Briggs presents a hypothetical example of a couple whose marital assets include a 401(k) worth $100,000 and a house with the same value in equity.

“It seems obvious,” said Briggs, “to divide it 50-50: you take the retirement plan, I’ll take the house. The problem is, whoever gets the 401(k) will have to pay income tax when they withdraw that money, while the other person has a $250,000 exclusion on capital gains when they sell the house. So, the division seems even up front, but down the road one party actually ends up with less.”

The one thing Briggs says should be divided immediately are any joint bank accounts the couple might have. (Need financial advice? Let us know)

“When you get divorced, one person almost always knows, usually for some period of time, while the other often gets caught off guard. Money in joint accounts tends to disappear as one party prepares for what they know is coming, so the two things I tell my clients to do immediately is close their joint accounts and check their credit report.”

Another reason to skip the holiday wedding: Family

The increased risk of divorce isn’t the only thing that can hang over a holiday wedding. Couples who plan to tie the knot on a holiday may also face the risk of hostile family members.

It might be tempting to schedule your big day for a time when everyone will already be in town, but proceed with caution: inconvenient wedding dates lead the list of top 10 wedding guest complaints, according to “Bridal Guide”. Ask yourself if it’s worth the potential resentment you may incur when you ask people to give up their holiday plans and make it about you instead.

“As much as they love you, do they really want to spend a major holiday celebrating you instead of being able to celebrate them?” asked wedding and event coordinator Davia Lee in a “Bridal Guide” blog post on choosing a wedding date. (Related: Pros and cons of holiday weddings)

Be careful about holiday engagements, too

The celebratory spirit of the holidays can make a proposal on Christmas or Valentine’s Day seem especially magical, but couples should proceed with caution when taking this step on an already-charged day.

“It’s so easy to get caught up in the tidal wave of celebration on Christmas, or the love-hype on Valentine’s Day,” said Deborah Moody, director of the Association of Certified Professional Wedding Consultants in San Jose, California, in an interview. “There’s a lot of emotion and excitement already, and your decision-making processes might not be at their best.”

Moody noted that in addition to the rosy glow of the holiday season, a person may find the question popped in full view of friends and family, which can be a lot of pressure.

“If you say yes primarily because it’s too awkward to say no in that situation and you don’t back out later, there’s a good chance you’ll struggle in your marriage.”

And if you’re offering a ring on a day when gifts are traditionally given, like Christmas or even Valentine’s Day, consider giving another gift, too.

“Normally, the ring has to be given back if an engagement ends,” said Briggs. “But if you break up after a holiday engagement and the ring was all you gave, they can say that the ring was your holiday gift to them. That can cost the proposer a lot of money.”

Everyone is different

While the data seems to indicate a higher chance of dissolution for special-date weddings, don’t panic: your marriage isn’t necessarily doomed if you got married on Valentine’s Day or a numerically significant date. Rhoades and Moody both point out that a special-date wedding is not a guarantee of divorce, nor is an ordinary-date wedding a sure indicator that your marriage will last.

Part of a couple’s success, according to Moody, may lie in understanding the difference between the wedding, which is a one-time event, and the marriage, which happens every day after it. (Related: Money matters before popping the question)

“Just like you might use insurance to plan for contingencies and the things that happen in life, you need to plan for your marriage, not just your wedding,” said Moody. “Sometimes there will be hiccups, there will be arguments. Sometimes you’ll need your own space. Can you overcome the things that happen in your marriage, whether they’re little things or catastrophic things? Are you willing to stand by this person and support them, no matter what?”

If the answer is yes, she said, a couple is much more likely to stay together.

“At the end of the day,” said Rhoades, “it depends on the relationship. If two people make the conscious and joint decision to spend their lives together, it’s likely that they’re thinking about the marriage and not just focusing on the wedding. In those cases, the date shouldn’t really matter.”

More from MassMutual…

5 ways money can wreck your marriage

Building your financial pyramid

Top 5 mistakes when purchasing life insurance

This article was first published in January 2017. It has been updated.



University of Melbourne—Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, “Not Your Lucky Day: Romantically and Numerically Special Wedding Date Divorce Risks,” Study used registry data for 1,124,707 marriages of different-sex couples ages 18—60 in the Netherlands from 1999 to 2013, September 2016.

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