Everyone knows that one of the leading causes of conflict in marriage is money. In some cases, the conflict is over legitimate expenditures like healthcare or education. But in many cases spouses fight over things that don’t really matter. “Do we need a kitchen redo? How about a new sofa? How much can I spend on a dress? Do we need a new car, or would a used one do?”
The Church offers a countercultural solution to this kind of conflict: the virtue of detachment. It’s the virtue that is opposed to the sin of covetousness. Detachment directs the heart away from reliance on material goods or an excessive concern about money. Detachment allows us to replace our financial anxieties with a firm reliance on God’s providence and an attitude of generosity towards others.
“Thou shalt not covet”
The commandment against covetousness is possibly the most neglected commandment in contemporary Western society. This is partly because our economic system is driven by consumer desire. It’s hard even to think about this as being a bad thing. Sure, back in ancient Israel, when there was only one rug in the camp, it made sense to say, “Don’t be jealous if you’re not the one who has it.” But today? If I covet my neighbor’s sofa, I can just go down to Ikea and buy one of my own.
In a society where mass-produced goods are easily available, the commandment to avoid coveting becomes a commandment to avoid excessive material desires. This can take the form of wanting things you can’t afford or you could afford only by going into debt. Or it can take the form of wanting things you can technically afford but which would prevent you from being able to be generous in providing for the needs of others.
Catholic social teaching tells us that our financial life should not be directed solely by our own wants and the needs of our families. We also have an obligation to provide for the Church and to care for the poor. The Catechism says that all material goods have a “universal destination,” meaning that they are meant to be enjoyed by everyone. The Church teaches that when we take more than we need, we are stealing from the poor.
Why we desire
Simply saying “Thou shalt not covet” isn’t all that helpful, however. Most of us want things we shouldn’t have. Often it’s not even voluntary. How are we supposed to observe a commandment that tells us not to do something that we do almost automatically?
The first step towards developing the virtue of detachment is to understand why we want things we don’t need. There are four basic causes that drive most of our covetous impulses:
1. Compensation. When I was starting out as a writer, I would compulsively buy fountain pens and notebooks every time I got writer’s block. What I really wanted was inspiration, but since I didn’t know how to find it, I compensated by buying objects that symbolized my craft.
2. Insecurity. Advertising preys on people’s insecurities. It might be a weight-loss commercial that tells you you’re fat, a jeans ad that presents a photoshopped teenager as an ideal of feminine beauty, or a spam email that tells you how much you need Viagra. Consumer culture tells us that we’re not good enough but also that we can buy intelligence, love, beauty and respect.
3. Belonging. What we consume sends out a message about who we are. Being part of the “in crowd” often demands keeping up a certain appearance—whether it’s wearing the right golf shoes, driving the right minivan, or eating at the right coffee bar. Goods that are unnecessary can seem like necessities if we feel we need them to be accepted.
4. Stress relief. Buying things releases chemicals that make us feel good. When we’re stressed out, depressed or bored, shopping can provide a temporary high. The anticipation of buying can add excitement or motivation to a bland day, and sometimes we seek out goods to covet just so we can daydream about buying them.
Law of diminishing returns
Covetousness temps us to seek emotional or spiritual goods by purchasing material goods instead. But the fix is purely temporary. If I feel like my friends don’t really like me, and I buy a fancy new diaper bag that will make me look like one of the popular moms, it’s unlikely that the new bag will actually improve my friendships. Even if I feel better for a while, the feeling that I don’t really belong is going to return.
This is because belonging cannot be bought. Belonging means being loved for who you are, not being accepted for what you own. If we try to buy our identities on the free market, we inevitably end up feeling more self-conscious and anxious because we sense that we are only superficially acceptable.
The same is true of all of the other psychological needs that we might try to fill through shopping. Face creams don’t make people younger. Rolex watches don’t make people successful. Running up a credit card balance doesn’t reduce stress.
Over time, people who are trying to fulfill their deeper needs with material goods will find that they have to spend more to get the same effect. If a $50 suit doesn’t make you feel attractive, the temptation is to think that the suit is too cheap; maybe a $100 suit would be better.
This is where shopping can become a serious problem, even an addiction. Moderate spending on reasonable luxuries doesn’t usually cause a lot of marital discord. It’s when the expenses start to spiral out of control that overspending can lead to serious fights, or ultimately to the breakdown of a marriage.
Occasions of covetousness
It’s hard to cultivate detachment in a world that constantly invites us to want things. Being aware of the ways in which we are drawn into covetousness can allow Catholics to become freer simply by avoiding occasions of desire.
1. Don’t compare. The temptation to “keep up with the Jones” has always been the archetypal occasion of covetousness. But today we are subconsciously invited to compare ourselves to people on TV. Sets are usually dressed without taking the profession of the characters into account, so a barista on TV can live as though she makes $70,000 a year. Real people can’t afford to imitate such unrealistic standards.
2. Avoid malls and big box stores. Big stores lure people in with promises of lower prices, but once you’re inside they manipulate you into buying more. How many of us have walked out of a Walmart with a cartload of useless impulse buys—without the one thing that we went in for? If you have to go to the mall, go armed with a shopping list and a small, clearly defined budget for “extras.”
3. Split the shopping. One spouse might be less tempted to buy unnecessary items at the hardware store, and the other might have more self-control in the clothing department. Instead of buying things for yourself, treat purchasing as a form of gift-giving: you buy for your spouse, and visa versa.
4. Beware of advertising. Marketers have made a science out of exploiting our psychological weaknesses. If you knew someone who constantly lied, made false promises, and tried to make you feel bad about yourself so you would give them money, you would avoid that person. Don’t read magazines that are mostly composed of glossy ads. Mute the commercials on your television and use the breaks as an opportunity to get up and move around. Don’t click on Internet advertising. You have a right to defend yourself against manipulative marketers.
5. Don’t browse. If you need something, write it down on a shopping list. If you don’t need anything, don’t go shopping. This includes window-shopping, flipping through catalogs, or browsing on eBay. It’s okay to shop just for the pleasure of it when you have extra money or on special occasions, but it should be a treat, not a habit.
One of the risks posed by seeking any virtue is that the first stages of progress are often painful. This can lead Catholics who are seeking detachment to become resentful of their spouse’s spending, to blame their spouse for the difficulties they face in progressing in virtue. This is an opportunity for the sin of pride to replace the sin of avarice. You may choose to start making progress towards detachment, but you shouldn’t judge your husband or wife for continuing in their own habits. It may take time—years or even decades—for a good example to reap its harvest.
It’s also important for Catholics to pursue detachment as an exercise in love. Detachment offers us the freedom to order our finances towards generosity. The short-term happiness of shopping is replaced with the deep-seated happiness of providing for the needs of the poor, being free from debt, and being able to give without worrying about the future.