It has been called "the last taboo." No matter how open we've become about other areas of our lives, money continues to be treated with an evasiveness that would do our Victorian ancestors proud.
Actually, you may not want to discuss personal finances at your next dinner party. But it's essential that you and your spouse learn healthy ways to talk about money. And while the size of your bank account is significant, it's the meaning you assign to money that makes the biggest impact on your marriage—for good or for ill.
From Me to We
While running errands after work, Jill noticed a great sale on bath furnishings. She picked out a colorful shower curtain with coordinating towels and accessories. She couldn't wait to show Greg! He wouldn't believe it.
Jill was right. He didn't believe it. How could she spend all that money when they already had a perfectly good shower curtain and several sets of towels they received as wedding gifts just six months earlier?
Within minutes, they were in the middle of another heated argument over finances, each trying to make the other "see reason." It wasn't their first money conflict. Jill objected to what Greg spent on golf outings. He objected to her buying a new dress for an office party. And on and on.
Family therapist Chloe Madanes, of Washington, D.C., says marriage may be the first relationship we encounter that is based on collaboration rather than on competing individual preferences.
Greg and Jill didn't know how to forge a new identity as a married couple without forfeiting their individual identities. Their arguments grew not from fear that they couldn't afford specific purchases, but from fear that they couldn't afford to give in to each other's spending preferences.
Another factor that affects how couples develop a sense of money-oneness is understanding how their concept of money was shaped by the family they grew up in. Jill and Greg both came from families that viewed money as a symbol of success and autonomy. But now that they were married, spending what they wanted, when they wanted, was creating a tug-of-war. Other spouses may end up clashing because they came from families with contrasting financial cultures. A woman who grew up equating money with security might marry a man from a family of spenders who expressed love through buying expensive gifts. In either case, our own financial style feels right because it reflects attitudes and values that are familiar.
Moving from individual to shared control of finances can feel threatening to newlyweds who are still learning to trust one another in other areas of life. Because money is concrete and quantifiable, it can become the focus of conflicts that are really about something more intangible. For instance, a newlywed might not feel comfortable accusing his or her mate of self-centeredness. So it's easier to criticize excessive spending instead.
Greg and Jill became so distressed by their constant fights over money that they went to a counselor. With her help, they finally voiced the real fears behind their money arguments. Although each was afraid of the other's perceived power, they agreed that neither of them wanted to lord it over the other. Once they realized they weren't in danger of being controlled, they began to relax and trust one another.
Their money conflicts didn't cease altogether. But after they learned to verbalize their feelings—and to respect and trust each other—they were much better equipped to find a mutually satisfying solution when they did clash over finances.
Dividing a Shrinking Pie
As couples move into their middle years, no longer does the question "mine or yours?" drive disagreements over money. Instead, the questions multiply as the couple's responsibilities mount: "Who gets what? How much? When? And how are we going to manage it?"
Although some middle-years marriages are jolted by crisis, most simply begin to sag under the weight of accumulating responsibilities and the simultaneous shrinking of available time and money. After 15 years of marriage, Jim and Sue feel stretched to the limit and see few good options that would improve their situation. When they had their first child, they agreed that one parent should be at home most of the time. Since Sue's job as a dental hygienist was more conducive to part-time hours, she naturally assumed that role. They still believe their decision was the right one, but financially it looked a lot easier on paper.
Jim feels the weight of responsibility for providing for his wife and three children. Preschool, soccer, a math tutor—who knew kids would cost so much? Although they do save a little, he fears it isn't enough to provide for his kids' future college tuition or for a comfortable retirement. Should he work longer hours? It wouldn't mean more money, but it might put him in line for a promotion. He envies Sue. Not only does she get more time with the kids, she doesn't have the burden of everyone's financial well-being depending on her income.
Sue can't help but notice Jim's fatigue and frustration. It concerns her that he worries so much about money, and she wonders if she should increase her hours at work. But she has always wanted to be a mother, not a dental hygienist. And she wonders if Jim would view her working longer hours as a lack of confidence in his ability to provide. Would the increase in her income be worth the additional time spent away from home? And what about childcare expenses?
Not knowing the answers, she settles for trying to cut spending, but still feels she's to blame for the financial pressures. Sue envies Jim. His role as primary provider is so clear-cut; he doesn't have to figure out how to divide up his life—and end up feeling guilty no matter what decision he makes.
Jim and Sue are actually making their struggle more difficult because they haven't let each other in on their thoughts and worries. They don't often argue, but they have unwittingly allowed their financial pressures to create distance between them. Although they have moved from competing to complementary roles, they need to share more than the family "business" if their marriage is to remain strong. Their reluctance to share their concerns openly puts them at risk of becoming resentful. And they also lose the benefit of putting two heads together when it comes to making decisions.
A breakthrough for Jim and Sue came late one evening while they were watching the news. A short spot on people taking on second jobs to pay off credit cards caught Sue's attention. She casually mentioned that Jim's availability to the family was worth the sacrifices they had to make in other areas. At that moment, he realized Sue didn't expect him to be a "super provider."
The following week when Jim found himself wrestling with a tough financial decision, he bounced an idea off Sue. He welcomed her input on how to increase their income without adding to their childcare costs. Contrary to what she had feared, Jim was far from threatened by her suggestions—he really seemed to appreciate them.
Over time, Jim and Sue became more comfortable talking through their concerns. And they were continually surprised at the ideas their combined creativity and perspective generated. While they still faced the financial pressures unique to their season of life, for once they began to feel they could handle them—if they stuck together as a team.
Contentment or Resentment?
As couples move into their later years, they begin to see how their previous financial choices have affected their current options. As retirement approaches, the most important financial question becomes "How are we going to live with our fixed income?" Resentments that weren't resolved in earlier years now begin to surface. At this stage, conflicts over money usually take the form of blame for decisions long past the possibility of change.
Throughout most of their marriage, Frank and Mary were comfortably well-off. While they weren't aggressive about saving, they do have enough to meet their basic living expenses during their retirement years. However, now that they're on a fixed income, they continually snipe at each other. Mary knows when it started: about a year ago when they realized that they could not afford to join two other couples on a vacation in Mexico.
Frank previously prided himself on earning enough money to enable Mary to spend freely. Now secretly ashamed that he no longer has his earning power, he blames their current limitations on those years of Mary's spending. Mary used to feel loved and worthwhile when she could spend whatever she wanted. Now secretly missing that former ego boost, she blames Frank for not having invested more of their income.
Frank and Mary need to take joint responsibility for earlier financial decisions and stop thinking that blame will somehow remedy their current situation. They also need to resist comparing themselves with others who have more and instead focus on what they do have.
It's true Frank and Mary may not bask in the sun of Cancun, but they have albums full of wonderful family vacation photos. They have warm memories of the joy on their children's faces at receiving special birthday and Christmas gifts. And in their children's adult lives they see the fruits of earlier investments in music lessons and sports activities.
A negative focus on the past can impede a couple's ability to work together on current financial decisions. Should they keep their home or exchange it for the more social setting of a condo or retirement community? How much of their income do they want for themselves, and how much do they hope to leave to their children or to charitable causes? Unless they can let go of resentment and blame, they won't be able to move on peacefully and productively with the rest of their lives.
Marital Investment Tips
Learning to listen to and respect your mate's money perspective is one way to invest in a valuable commodity—your marriage. Here are five ways to avoid the places where many couples flounder.
Without self-criticism or self-justification, identify your own relationship with money. What does money mean to you? Does it make you feel powerful, anxious, guilty, loved, responsible or secure? What assumptions and values about money did you develop while you were growing up?
Avoid labeling your spouse's attitudes as right or wrong. Try to understand one another's money history. Listen for the hurts, fears, wishes and hopes that get funneled into money. Try to empathize rather than criticize. Honoring each other's needs can help you respectfully negotiate your financial decisions. Remember, respect breeds trust.
Learn from each other. Temporarily suspend your own beliefs and see what your spouse has to teach you. A saver can learn a new kind of security when stretched by a spouse who exchanges money for present enjoyment, or who finds satisfaction in giving.
Together, list your priorities. What is valuable to you? Identify the top priorities you share and what this means for your budget. In my husband's family, the adventure of traveling around the United States was a high priority, and their budget was geared toward that. They did without some things, but family gatherings today are enlivened by stories of being "chased down a mountain by a snowstorm" and the potholes on the old Alaska Highway.
Get sound advice. Some conflicts over money come from simply not being aware of your options. Ask someone you trust to refer you to a qualified financial advisor who will respect your particular priorities.
Beverly J. Burch, M.A., is a psychotherapist practicing in the Chicago area.
Copyright © by Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership Magazine.