The number one reason for divorce isn’t infidelity or even physical abuse. It’s money. Couples get sick about fighting over it: who controls it, where it goes, and even how much they need. That’s because money means so much more than dollars and sense. It represents power, freedom, dreams and values, and even define family dynamics.
So the next time you and your partner fight about money, stop and think: what is this really about? If you understand the real root of your financial disagreements, you can work together for a fair and peaceful solution, and possibly save your marriage. And that’s priceless.
1. What does money represent to your partner and to you?
Is your husband a tightwad? You may feel that he’s controlling all the money because he’s the breadwinner, and you have no voice because your work—raising kids, cleaning house—doesn’t bring home a paycheck. But he may be coming from a different perspective. Perhaps he grew up from a poor family and he swore to himself that he’d never go through that kind of hardship and financial uncertainty again.
Money can mean different things to different people. These attitudes are shaped by childhood experiences, and amplified by whatever emotional issue you’re going through right now. That’s why a couple can start talking about something as mundane as whether or not to buy a second car, and then find themselves fighting about something else completely. ‘Why won’t you buy a car? It’s so hard to shuttle the kids to soccer practice in that old junkheap!’ screams the wife. (Subtext: ‘You don’t listen to, or care about, my needs.’) ‘Can’t you get it? It’s a recession! Do you think money grows on trees?’ he yells back. (Subtext: ‘I’m afraid I can’t provide for my family in the future. I’m working as hard as I can and it’s never enough.’)
2. Deal with the emotions and the numbers separately.
When you start getting upset with your partner, take a deep breath and try to see what it is you’re really reacting to. What are you afraid of? What do you wish your partner would do, and what does that action represent to you? ‘If he appreciated me, he’d want to give me something that would make me happy. Maybe he thinks I’m just sitting around here twiddling my thumbs while waiting for him to get back from work.’ Take note of that emotion—but don’t bring it up yet. It’s not the right time. Stick, first, to the facts and numbers. ‘We need to replace the car. How much can we afford to spend? iF we can’t buy it now, let’s brainstorm on a savings plan and a time frame.’
3. Don’t blame him for the problem, brainstorm for a solution.
Then, when you’re both in a better frame of mind, talk about the emotional issue that was triggered. Phrasing is everything. Don’t say what he didn’t do (‘You don’t appreciate me!’), say what you feel, what you need, and how he can help you. ‘I’m insecure about not contributing to the family income. I need to feel my work as as a mom is appreciated. Can we talk about my having a personal allowance?”
4. Get to know each other’s fears and dreams.
Remember when you were dating? You could spend hours just sharing your opinions and hopes for the future. After marriage—and all the demands of raising kids, juggling careers and housework—those heartfelt conversations grow few and far between.
Once that happens, you won’t be able to pick up on each other’s emotional needs and cues. That’s when the wife starts saying, ‘He doesn’t understand me!’ and the husband complains, ‘She just keeps nagging!’ You hear each other but you don’t really listen to each other. You miss the subtext, the feeling of ‘he really gets me!’ or ‘she cares about what I think!’ that made you fall in love with each other in the first place.
Spend time with each other. Schedule one-on-one time, away from the kids, when you can talk about absolutely anything except household errands or bills. That way, when you run into another financial feud, you’re prepared with the most powerful peacekeeping tools of all: sensitivity and compassion.
5. Talk about money proactively, not reactively.
Many couples only talk about money when there’s a problem, like a sky-high credit card bill. Unfortunately, that means both of you are in panic mode and are more likely to point fingers and get defensive.
Instead of waiting for things to get bad, sit down and talk about how to make things good. ‘You’ve always said you were worried about being old and broke. Let’s talk about what we can do to prepare for our retirement.’ Or, ‘I’ve always wanted to have a little money of my own, even if I’m a full time mom. Can you help me think of a small home business that I can start when the kids are older?’
These steps may not erase your financial woes—at least not immediately—but they can prevent arguments from escalating into an ugly mess. And most importantly, they help you realize that you’re both on the same side. Money problems come and go, but the great promise and comfort of marriage is that you don’t have to face these alone.