Angry Money: Why Successful (But Not Rich) American Families Fight the Most

The downside of being upper middle class? There's a lot of yelling involved.

In 1993, Mrs. Doubtfire, a family movie about an ugly divorce, raked in $441 million at the box office. The Hillard family’s story — dad leaves job, working mom leaves marriage, kids get left with British nanny — resonated even though, in contrast to the then-popular show Roseanne, the characters had what seemed like a slightly unrelatable amount of money. (Remember the petting zoo scene?) But viewers seemed to innately understand that the Hillards weren’t fighting despite their wealth; they were fighting, on some level at least, because of it.

The Hillards were not fabulously wealthy. Movies about the truly rich tend to be a bit more tragic in the traditional sense. That’s a different genre. The Hillards were upper middle class and, as such, belonged to what was then an emerging class of dual-income families inclined to discord. Did American moviegoers explicitly understand this? Almost certainly not. It’s easy, after all, to leap to the conclusion that poor and struggling families would be the most conflict-prone. But that’s not the case. The Hillards fought at least in part because they were at odds about their position in the class structure and because Miranda Hillard was scared of slipping down a rung or two on the socio-economic ladder. They fought precisely because they had more than most.

There is a thick line between those who are wealthy enough to not fight over money and people who have money, but not substantial wealth. It should come as no surprise then that family dynamics are different on each side of that line. The very wealthy fight less and often through proxies. The nearly wealthy fight directly and fiercely to maintain a more tenuous position in the social order. To be almost rich is to be part of America’s fighting class, a group that — despite profound privilege — seem particularly prone to serious family conflict. Why? Is keeping up with the Joneses that stressful? Oddly, no. Research on divorce and economic decision making suggests that upper middle-class American families spend a unique amount of time fighting — mostly over what they have rather than what they lack.

This pattern is most clearly evidenced in macro trends. The rise of the American standard of living has been paralleled by a rise in the divorce rate. The data on really ugly divorces within the upper middle class is much fuzzier, but up-and-to-the-right trend seems — at least anecdotally — to be evidenced there as well.

“How much people fight in a divorce often follows a curve and at the bottom end of the socioeconomic spectrum, there’s nothing to fight over financially, child custody and support notwithstanding,” says Devon Slovensky, a divorce attorney who has studied economics and worked with clients from the lower, middle, and upper classes. “Once you get into high net-worth individuals, the cost of the fight can far underweigh the potential benefits, and the parties have less financial pressure to resolve things amicably.”

What does that mean? Essentially that middle-income couples understand the upside of resolving things amicably and rich couples can afford not to fight (what’s another summer home among friends?), but that those in the upper-middle class, a monied but not outright wealthy group, go to war.

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To understand why this is, it’s important to understand loss aversion. Behavioral economists have long known that the risk of loss looms larger in most people’s’ psyches than the prospect of equal gain. This is why casinos don’t traffic in games of chance with odds close to 1:1. In order for most people to take a gamble, they have to believe that the potential return is significantly higher than the risk. Scientists suspect that the amygdala drives some of this illogic and have found that the insular cortex of the brain, increases in activity when people lose access to resources.

In other words, fights about the bird in the hand are likely to be fiercer than fights about the bird in the nest. A certain type of comfort breeds a specific type of anxiety. And research specifically shows that members of the middle class are more risk-averse than people with less money, due to a “fear of falling” down the socio-economic staircase. That nervousness hangs over the upwardly mobile, who feel a unique sort of pressure that tends to catalyze disagreements.

However, according to Randall Kessler, a divorce attorney who’s represented a number of high profile clients, there is a threshold of wealth people need to reach before they become combative and also a threshold at which they become less combative again. The threshold for rich people getting along during divorce proceedings? Roughly $5 million. The threshold for upper middle-class people trying to destroy each other? That’s harder to peg.

“If you have less than 5 million you’re not set for life. Less than $5 million, you’re not secure no matter who you are,” Kessler says.

It takes just over a million dollars to be considered “financially comfortable” according to a nationwide poll by the Schwab Center for Financial Research in partnership with Koski Research. Again, it’s a fuzzy number, but indicative that families with a net worth of somewhere between $1 and $5 million may be particularly prone to conflict. That’s roughly 9.4 percent of Americans. That’s the fighting class.

“It’s not just people in poverty who are feeling the most stress about their money, it’s really just this feeling which anybody can have,” Jeff Dew, a professor of demography and family studies at Brigham Young University, told Fatherly. “It’s not about a scarcity of resources.”

Dew has conducted a number of studies on how income and wealth affect fighting and divorce in marriage, and found after controlling for wealth, income, and debt that neither of those aspects predicted fighting in marriage alone. However, stress about money predicted fighting between spouses, and fighting about money predicted divorce. In one study Dew followed couples through their first five years of marriage and found that fights about money were the strongest predictor of divorce for wives only predictor of divorce for husbands. (Divorce is not a totally accurate proxy measurement for family fighting, but it’s pretty good in a pinch.)

“I wonder if women are more sensitive to the threat aspect of money and men are more sensitive to money as status,” Dew says and other experts agree.

“Husbands indicated more anger when it came to money,” Lauren Papp, a professor at the University of Madison Wisconsin’s School of Human Ecology, told Fatherly, citing a separate study where her team had couples keep conflict diaries. “It can be very personal and relate to power and decision making and who might carry the weight in the relationship. Those decisions can reflect much more than simple money.”

Couples in these kinds of power struggles can find their way to therapy, and one party outearning the other usually what brings them there, marriage and family therapist Carrie Krawiec explains.

“In middle and most likely high-income couples, one partner may outearn another creating an imbalance,” Krawiec says. Couples, where the woman earns more, are more prone to divorce. And couples with women as the primary earners are also more likely, according to PEW Research Center data, to have a higher net income.

Interestingly, the power dynamics that create a fighting class also play out in the political system. The most politically polarized Americans on the right and the left are predominantly members of the “professional class.” They are typically educated and successful, but not quite wealthy. Politically and economically speaking, this class in unusually pissed off according to Tom Smith, Director of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. He says that part of the reason for this is the “wealth gap.”

“Wealth inequality is greater than income inequality,” Smith points out. “The proportion of the income that goes to the top 10 percent is smaller than the proportion of wealth held by the top 10 percent.”

The wealth gap appears to hit families with children the hardest, especially in recent years. While the net worth of people 65 and older increased by 45 percent on average between 1989 and 2013, the net worth of families with children saw their wealth decrease by 56 percent in the same time according to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances. The same findings reveal that the top 1 percent of families with children have seen their wealth increase by 156 percent between 1989 and 2013, compared to the bottom half who’ve had their wealth shrink by 260 percent in the same period of time. Those adjacent to that one percent — the ones close enough to be jealous — have every reason to be miffed.

Still, there is a twist. Upper-middle class husbands and wives are starting to get divorced less frequently and having more kids. The increase in the upper middle-class birth rate can be ascribed in part to high-earning women. This means that more and more children are growing up in the fighting class. Is this worrisome? Not really. Ultimately, money can do a lot to cushion the blow of parental fighting.

Upper middle-class kids have access to more quality education, afterschool programs, activities, and early childhood interventions than working class kids, which give them a leg up on social, cognitive, and emotional development throughout their lives. Do they wind up leaving their white-collar jobs just a bit early to see a therapist? In some cases, yes. But that’s a privilege as well.

The Hillard kids are alright. It was their parents who got hurt.