How to Handle Money Conflicts in Marriage

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April is the time of year that Americans focus on taxes and this leads to discussions about money. Since research show that money is the number one topic of conflict for most couples and that 50% of the divorces in this country are because of money differences, it is worth a great deal of attention in marriage. We have learned that money is typically not the real issue that couples fight about. But rather it is what money represents that can cause the rub. So rule number 1 in dealing with money in marriage is to know what it represents to you and your spouse.
 

What does Money represent to you and your spouse?

 
For most people money is more than a tool for survival. It means something much deeper. It can be prestige, power, possessions, or status, real or falsely created to heal a faulty self-esteem. Money can be a means to control others and get your way. It can mean that you are valued or worthy or taken care of. The meaning of money can direct you in financial ways that are not healthy for you or your marriage.
 
Some spouses go on a spending spree because they feel they are not getting their needs met by their partner. Some even shop to inflict pain on their partner consciously or unconsciously. Some spend in a child-like manner secretly desiring their spouse to be the parent and meet their immature need for possessions. Other spouses buy fancy suits and cars they cannot afford to look prosperous and cover for feelings of failure at work. Money can be a means for you to feed envy, competition or jealousy. If that’s the case you may be consciously or unconsciously keeping up with the Jones which is a game you will never win.
 
If envy and competition are you goals then you are playing a futile game because the elusive “enough” you are searching for will always be just out of reach. This does not only cause a terrible internal battle for your soul, but if your spouse does not play the same game you will have conflict. If your spouse is a frugal saver who is not envious or competitive, but is far more content with life then you will have conflict. Over-spenders need to seek contentment and satisfaction, not only on a physical level but on a spiritual level as well. Poor financial habits can be a direct result one’s background which leads to rule number 2 in managing money conflict as a couple. You need to learn how your background and family-of-origin affects your philosophy and attitude about money.
 

Learn and discuss how your background affects your notions about money.

 
This is where the Soul Healing Love Model is so helpful. In counseling we have couples look at their childhood and how it has affected them in their current relationships and with the issue of money they ask several questions, such as what is your socio-economic background and how did it inform your notion of money? How did your parents handle money? What was their attitude about spending and saving? Did they have money fights or did they agree on money issues? Did your parents see the value of tithing and charitable giving and instill that in you? Did they teach you how to view and manage money in a healthy way? The answers to these questions may even cause a soul wound to surface as it did for me.
 
I grew up with a single mom with 4 kids who supported us as a waitress and with the child support my dad sent. We barely had enough to go around and it was hard as I got older to watch some of the other girls in my school dress in the latest fashions while I got second-hand clothes. When any of us asked for things her constant refrain was, “We can’t afford it.” So eventually I stopped asking and began work to earn my own money at age 14. As a result, I became an obsessive saver. When we got married I wanted to control our finances in the same obsessive way I had learned to do in childhood. I was sure I was right because being frugal is a “noble endeavor and spending is frivolous.” I would scold Tom for buying a big gulp at the local 7-11 when he should just drink water! My fear led to unhealthy control. Tom would say that I would pinch a penny till Lincoln’s eyes popped out. It is funny now but then my fear of losing everything because of my upbringing caused conflict in our marriage.
 
Tom grew up in a middle class home in California with two working parents so he was afforded many things I didn’t have. I would tease him and say he was rich because he had carpet and indoor plumbing! We can laugh about this some 40 years later because we learned to understand what was smoldering underneath our money fights. This is why it is important to learn how your family background affects your spending patterns and money habitudes today. If you grew up with a family that budgeted and saved and your mate grew up getting everything that you asked for and lacked for nothing, then you could have very different ideas about money and the management of it. Opposites do attract and this is no more true than in the management of money or the lack there of. Most couples marry their opposite in many ways. It’s what makes for the excitement in marriage.
 
Famous Financial Advisor and Author, Larry Burkett says, “If two people just alike get married, one is unnecessary.” We believe that God brings you your opposite in order to chart your course of growth and to teach you a different perspective. Being open to listen and share each other’s perspectives and the wounds they have around money can help you understand each other better and move to healing and compromise rather that a constant power struggle. Financial Counselors also advise that couples look for similarities in their money styles. Find the ways in which you are alike in your philosophy of money. Say both of you want to pay off school debt or save for a great vacation. Use these similarities as a springboard for compromise and healthy conflict resolution. This gets us to some more practical suggestions in healthy money management in marriage. Rule number 3 is to be transparent about all money matters. Keeping secrets of any kind can torpedo a marriage, and secrets about money can be even deadly.
 

Be transparent about money.

 
A recent American Express poll found that 91% of people avoided talks with their partner about finances, and 1 in 3 acknowledged lying to their partner about finances. A 2017 study by Ramsey Solutions had similar findings. Financial Advisors have a term for this. It is Financial Infidelity. That term may seem harsh but if you are the spouse that has been deceived or lied to you know that the term fits. A common problem we see in our office is that the spender hides purchases or opens credit cards in secret keeping important information from his or her spouse. There is a saying that a relationship is only as healthy as its secrets. It is so traumatic for a spouse to discover that their partner has racked up $10,000 in credit card debt without their knowledge. This can often mean that there is an untreated shopping addiction that needs attention immediately. We also see that the main breadwinner lies or obfuscates the truth about his or her earnings or bonuses. Thus the other spouse thinks there is more money in the kiddy than is actually there, so they spend it often lavishly getting the family in financial hot water. You may think that you are avoiding conflict by hiding the truth but you are only complicating your money situation that will eventually have to be dealt with.
 
Money secrets undermine trust which is essential for a marriage to thrive. Betrayed spouses feel much like their mate has had an affair. They feel lied to, deceived, let down and unprotected. The reality that they once knew is not real so they doubt everything in the relationship and trust is shattered much like the victim of adultery. If you have hidden information about your finances there is no time like the present to confess, come clean and ask for forgiveness. You may need a marriage counselor who understands the deeper soul wounds in both of you to help you heal. Being open and honest in the first place forces you to talk calmly, compromise and develop a workable financial plan. This leads us to Rule Number 4. Develop a financial plan together.

 

Develop a financial plan.

 
In being transparent you sit down face to face and develop a summary of your net-worth. What do you own and what do you owe. It is a good idea to get a free credit score on a regular basis to keep track of your debt and review monthly expenses to determine if you can cut or add things. Ask each other about their financial philosophies. Do you desire to save? Do you give charitably? What are your financial goals: Get out of debt, Save for retirement, Start a savings account for your kid’s college? What is it that you want and how are you planning to get there? Yes, it can be daunting and you both may want to avoid this reality, especially if you know your budget is limited by your earnings or circumstances, but ignoring the elephant in the living room can only cause it to run amuck and cause great damage. Dave Ramsey says he gets asked often who should pay the bills and his answer is “both of you.” Both people should know what is coming in and what is going out so that they are not left in the dark about what they have and what they owe.
 
This leads to a dreaded topic for many couples and that is The Budget. For some this conjures images of scarcity and confinement but it can actually be liberating says, Financial Advisor and author of Smart Money Smart Kids, Rachel Cruze. She states, “The purpose of a budget is not to limit freedom, but to give you freedom —with some boundaries.” Financial Planner, Ron Blue says that you should have your budget and financial plan written down and in front of you so everything is visible, then you see what you can and cannot spend. There are plenty of apps to help you examine your spending patterns and develop a workable budget. Quicken and Every Dollar are just a few. If you or your spouse have a hard time hearing the word, “No” this will be hard but it can also be a great growing experience for him or her. Being stubborn about what you hear as you start to budget can lead to passive aggressive (secret spending) or buying in rebellion and expecting the spouse to just “deal with it” and find the money from somewhere else. These are all bad money habits that not only cause conflict but can lead to divorce. Your money belongs to both of you and you both need to compromise on the budget. What if one spouse wants to budget and the other doesn’t? Since we know opposites attract we know that this is common and extremely difficult.
 
So for some, seeking financial counseling can be helpful. For others marriage counseling may be indicated. Dave Ramsey says that bad relationships create money messes and money messes create bad relationships. Marriage counseling can help you deal with these messes. It helps you look at how your childhood affected your money habitudes and see the deeper meaning of money in your life and in your spouse’s life. You can then learn healthy ways to communicate about money that bring about understanding, enhance empathy and foster forgiveness and healing in your marriage.
 
You don’t have to keep having the dreaded money fights.
 
There is a way out!
 

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