By Dr. Jeanne Peterson
Money and the management of finances is a frequent source of stress for couples and one I often hear about when couples come to see me. When couples argue about how to spend or whether to save, they are not only fighting about money. Money has meaning to us all beyond being a means to meet our basic needs, so that thoughts and feelings about money are of great importance. When couples discuss money, they are also speaking about their greatest anxieties – worries about deprivation, of importance to others, of safety or stability, or of their "worth" in this world. Sometimes these fears operate outside our conscious awareness. Fights in this arena can become intense as each person’s deeper feelings and needs show up in these discussions.
Partner’s beliefs about money can also cause arguments. Believing that we “should” have the same goals or same desires about finances or believing that your partner should be able to “know your rules of spending” without verbal communication is more of a fantasy than reality. Of course, our varied life experiences dictate that we will have different goals and different rules. No two people have been raised exactly alike. If the partners have adult children or children from a previous marriage these differences are heightened and there are almost always different priorities and goals for spending on children. Other beliefs can also create conflict. For example, sometimes partners equate money to power within the relationship – in essence, “I earn more money (or have more money), so I get to make more of the decisions.” These underlying assumptions create increased conflict every time money is discussed.
Often couples don’t have a shared plan for their spending and saving or haven’t developed mutual goals. Conflicts then take the form of arguing about the other person’s “wrong” actions or point of view without the opportunity to get to a mutually satisfying point of agreement.
So how can couples change the negative climate on finances? The first target should be to keep from encountering unresolved feelings or needs every time they begin a discussion of their bills or their budget. A good place to start is in acknowledging that we all react emotionally to money and that money represents much more to us than just its face value. Begin by exploring the meaning of money for each spouse, through describing early memories associated with money, fears about lack of money or restrictions, and dreams that each person wants to realize through financial means. The more you understand about your partner’s inner experience, the better equipped you are to find solutions that satisfy both of you. Understanding what your partner fears, may offer you the chance to reassure him or her – or present your own desires in ways that don’t trigger your partner’s fear response.
In addition to increasing your understanding of money’s meaning to your partner, presume that everyone needs to know more about how to save, invest, spend according to values, and manage the long-term and daily chores of budgeting. Although a few people are fortunate enough to have had formal education in this area or excellent mentoring from a parent or responsible adult, the majority of people need time and attention paid to LEARNING how to manage money and to align their actions with their values and goals. Ideally, you can take the criticism out of this area and focus instead on building new skills and knowledge together.
Gather information about your finances and share it with your spouse. Both of you need to know the state of your joint and separate finances. Making an agreement to promote full disclosure and avoid secrecy is essential to building trust and permitting for joint management of such an important area of your relationship.
Developing a joint plan that includes financial goals and a budget that allows you to reach those goals can help to avoid arguments. If your priorities are very different, you will need to discuss how much of your finances should be mutual and how much should be kept separate. It is often wise to use a certified financial planner or accountant – unless you are in the financial planning field, you could use the expertise of a professional to be sure your plan is sound and your strategies will allow your goals to be met. Sometimes a neutral third party – either marital therapist or financial planner - can help you to stay on track with your new patterns of interaction or with building the skills you need in money management.
As with all marital issues, fair and safe communication about money is key. It is essential to find ways to take criticism and blame out of the discussions so that communication is productive. The goal should be to maintain curiosity about your partner’s perspective as it allows you to learn more in a nonjudgmental way and helps both of you to avoid defensiveness. Developing habits for regular communication can also help you avoid confusion and errors. I recommend couples set aside time at least monthly to discuss finances. Couples who regularly discuss incoming and outgoing monies avoid misunderstandings. Being structured about your money discussions and your plans can also be smart – deciding on an agenda for your meetings and coming prepared for the information exchange ensures that the time can be well-spent.
Couples who do the work of digging into their money patterns, of building new skills for joint management and communication about money can reduce their stress around finances. In an atmosphere of openness, nonjudgmental discussion and safety from fears, compromise and harmony in this area is possible!