“We spend money we don’t have,” observed Woody Allen, “to buy things we don’t need, to impress people we don’t like.” Three years ago, an economics professor, an environmental watchdog, and an award-winning television producer set out to see if Allen’s humorous insight was true—do we Americans purchase things to feel better about ourselves and impress others?
After carefully examining our frantic American lifestyle, they diagnosed us with a fictitious disease they creatively called affluenza. Affluenza is a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting in the dogged pursuit of more. Like many diseases, affluenza can only be detected by its symptoms. The presence of affluenza becomes obvious when we consider what we value, how we spend our time, and our level of contentment in the midst of it all. The diagnosis is not encouraging.
In each of the past four years more Americans declared personal bankruptcy than graduated from college. Our annual production of solid waste would fill a convoy of garbage trucks stretching halfway to the moon. We have twice as many shopping centers as high schools. We now work more hours each year than do the citizens of any other industrial country, including Japan. Ninety-five percent of our workers say they wish they could spend more time with their families.
“We spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like.” Columnist Ellen Goodman describes what this obsession costs us on a day-to-day basis. The day starts “getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to the job that you need so you can pay for the clothes, car and the house that you leave empty all day in order to afford to live in it.”
How does affluenza impact your marriage? Simply put, affluenza breeds dissatisfaction. Every time I connect to the Internet I’m met by a pop-up window that tells me my Internet connection could be twice as fast. Our family van is fine, but TV ads remind me that it doesn’t have OnStar, built-in DVD players, or automatic parallel parking. Even before I had figured out how to use my new laptop computer, tech-savvy friends were telling me if I bought the same computer today it would have a bigger screen, super thin DVD burner, three times the memory, and integrated optical drive. In an age of affluenza we are taught to be dissatisfied, to focus on what we don’t have.
This conditioned dissatisfaction bleeds over into our marriages. If we’re not careful, over time, the same dissatisfaction we can have with a year-old personal computer can be true of how we view our spouse. We start to take note of the qualities our spouse doesn’t have.
If we’re not careful, over time, the same dissatisfaction we can have with a year-old personal computer can be true of how we view our spouse.
Affluenza also fosters isolation. Our homes have become cocoons where we not only cut ourselves off from neighbors, but each other. Mom is checking Facebook while binge-watching Downtown Abby. Dad is on the Internet catching up on work while live-streaming a soccer game. Brother and sister are upstairs in separate rooms, playing two different games on two different PSPs. Glenn Stanton, a director of a family-support organization, calls this phenomenon the new homelessness. “Everybody is connected to something outside the home even though they are physically within the home.” The effects are obvious—less time together, less time to communicate.
“Everybody is connected to something outside the home even though they are physically within the home.”
-Glenn Stanton, director of a family-support organization
Affluenza also sadly threatens the key part of our communication climate—trust. When so much time and energy is spent doggedly pursing more we start to lose trust that we are more important than status and things. On our wedding day we made a promise in front of friends, family, our lover, and God that our marriage would be primary above all else. Now, in an age of affluenza we are in danger of breaking our word and the trust our spouse had in us.
Tim Muehlhoff is a professor of communication at Biola University and author of several books, including I Beg to Differ and Marriage Forecasting. His most recent publication, Defending Your Marriage, speaks to spiritual warfare in marriage and how to equip yourself to defend your relationship. For the past 18 years, he and his wife, Noreen, have been frequent speakers at FamilyLife marriage conferences. Muehlhoff regularly writes and speaks for the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships. Follow Dr. Muehlhoff on Twitter.