Q: My husband and I seem to always argue about the same thing: money. No matter how hard we try, we keep fighting over our finances! How can we overcome this pattern of conflict?
A: A lot of couples fight some; some couples fight a lot. And according to a 2012 AICPA survey in the Wall Street Journal, numerous studies report that couples fight more about finances than any other issue. The survey revealed the following stats:
- On average, couples fight about money at least three times per month. That made it the most volatile topic, ahead of fights about children, chores, work, or friends.
- The most common cause for money arguments (58 percent) focused on differing opinions of needs versus wants.
- Forty-nine percent of couples argue about unexpected expenses, and 32 percent argue about insufficient savings.
- Thirty percent of married adults have engaged in at least one deceitful behavior related to their finances (such as hiding purchases).
Does any of this sound familiar? Consider these common situations:
Scenario 1: After buying a giant new flat-screen television without discussing the purchase first, your spouse is now yelling at you for spending too much on a pair of shoes.
Scenario 2: You and your spouse are at odds over how much to save for retirement. You want to spend money now and enjoy life. Your spouse wants to save as much as possible.
Scenario 3: Your church announced a major campaign to raise money for drilling wells in Uganda. The pastor is asking every member to give beyond what they normally give. Sounds good to you. But it doesn't sound so good to your spouse.
Most couples face numerous issues like these on a regular basis. Any one of them could ignite a major financial conflict! But if a couple can learn how to have a "good fight" about finances, they will help their marriage enormously.
So what's the secret? You can certainly do the obvious basics like curbing excessive spending, agreeing on a budget, digging yourself out of debt, cutting up your credit cards, discussing major purchases, and devising a savings plan. These are wise actions, but we suggest you go deeper.
Money represents power, security, values, and dreams. Nearly any financial conflict you have can be traced back to a fear related to one of these important issues.
In Scenario 1, the fight between the spouse who bought a flat screen and the one who bought an expensive pair of shoes was not really about how much either had spent. It was over who had power and how the other might threaten that power. Whenever one person controls the purse strings, it's a power play. That spouse is in charge of more than just money. He or she is treating the other like a child, and conflict is inevitable.
In Scenario 2, the couple at odds over how much to save for retirement were not really fighting about saving or spending. It was over security. One partner, the saver, carries more anxiety than the other about their future wellbeing. When the other spends money that could be going toward that security, anxiety increases—as does the likelihood of conflict.
The fight in Scenario 3 was not about money for wells in Uganda. It was over values that represent generosity and other personal spiritual matters. When one spouse resists the other's desire to give toward a cause, there will be conflict.
The point is that financial fights are rarely about money! They are about much deeper and more important matters. It's no wonder that money tops the list as the topic couples fight about most. Look at what it represents: power, security, values, and dreams.
So if you want to minimize a currency conflict, trace it back to the fear that's fueling it. Instead of fighting over the amount of money that was spent on whoknows-what, shift the focus toward what really matters: (1) your fear of not having influence in important issues impacting your life, (2) your fear of not having security in your future, (3) your fear of having no respect shown for your values, or (4) your fear of not realizing your dreams.
Keeping the conversation focused on the deeper issues behind the money has a way of helping both partners practice the CORE of a "good fight"—Cooperate, take Ownership, show Respect, and practice Empathy. Why? Because the deeper issues entail more vulnerability. And vulnerability begets vulnerability. It keeps the conversation focused on what matters most to both of you.
Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott are the bestselling authors of numerous books. This article is adapted from their new book The Good Fight: How Conflict Can Bring You Closer (Worthy Publishing, 2013). Used with permission. Visit LesAndLeslie.com.
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