Married and fighting about money?
And are you worried about all the bickering and blaming and perhaps shouting and insult-throwing? You have good reasons to be – and not to be. On the negative side of the ledger, plenty of studies over the years have indicated that fighting over money is a leading indicator of a future divorce.
But on the positive side, some studies have gone the other way. For instance, a 2001 California State University study that looked at data from 2,000 married couples over a 12-year period determined that finances play a minor role in marriage breakups. That study suggested that being incompatible, having problems in the bedroom, a lack of emotional support and abuse are much better indicators of whether a couple will split.
All healthy marriages have disagreements over money, says Laurie Puhn, a New York City-based couples mediator and author of “Fight Less, Love More: 5 Minute Conversations to Change Your Relationship without Blowing Up or Giving In.”
“People should expect to fight about finances,” Puhn says. “It’s a part of any marriage and any long-term relationship. You will fight about finances.”
With that in mind, here are some reasons you might fight and some strategies to come to a positive resolution.
Why you’re fighting?
One of you earns much more money than the other. That’s a common scenario, but resentment can easily creep in when “the secondary earner attempts to spend a greater share of the money than they earn,” says Jeff Gropp, chair of the department of economics and management at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. “This resentment on both sides may be exacerbated in a household with only one income earner.”
Your objectives are different. “For example, one person may be more risk-averse and want to put more money away for retirement, while the other person may be more consumer-oriented,” Gropp says. “Do you really need that new car, or should you put money away in your 401(k)? Putting money away in a 401(k) may sound boring, but it may be the more financially prudent move.”
Your personalities are different. For instance, Gropp says, “One parent may be deemed the ‘fun’ parent, and the other would be the ‘boring’ parent.”
The fun parent, for example, is happy to spend freely on the kids so they have an idyllic childhood; the other thinks the family should reserve their limited funds for books and clothes instead of amusement parks and movies. In a case like this, both parents may be right.
But it’s important to think about the “why” because emotions play such a big factor in disagreements over finances, says James Cordova, a psychology professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and author of “The Marriage Checkup.”
“It’s rarely the math that couples are really arguing over,” Cordova says. “It’s what the money means to us emotionally, and if you don’t address your emotions, it’s like looking for your car keys under the street lamp when you lost them in the bushes.”
What you can do about your money fights.
Disagree agreeably. Easier said than done, especially when one partner brings up a sore topic without warning, such as “We never have enough money,” or “You spent how much on what?” Suddenly the bell has rung, and you two are swinging verbal punches.
That’s why you need to talk about how you argue and think of yourselves as boxers being warned by the referee not to eye gouge, bite or hit below the belt. As Puhn mentioned earlier, it’s natural to fight about money – but how you do battle is important.
“You want to have a good fight and not a bad one, so you’re coming up with some resolution,” Puhn says. “If you can’t come up with a solution, it’s a real waste of energy.”
And to disagree agreeably, you have to respect each other’s opinions, she advises.
That sounds perfectly reasonable, but what if you don’t respect your spouse’s opinion? What if, try as you might, you simply think he or she spends money on stupid things?
“Then fake it,” Puhn says, adding, “Disrespect breeds disrespect. If you ask your spouse why he thinks it’s important that he spends money on something, and while he’s answering, you cut him off, don’t expect to be able to finish your own thoughts during the conversation.”
Set up separate bank accounts. Keep the joint account for household expenses and set up separate accounts where you each have the same amount to spend on discretionary purchases. You’ll both have more freedom and the arrangement can work out well, Puhn says, unless you’re hiding secrets.
Have a goal in mind. You both need to know what you’re fighting about so you can reach a decision or meet somewhere in the middle. Are you fighting about how to pay the bills? Or the fact that one or both of you should be making more money?
“Separate the issues and stay on topic because you can’t reach a resolution on the bills if you’re fighting about whether your spouse should get another job,” Puhn says.
Accept each other’s differences. There may be some differences you don’t like, but if you love your partner, you shouldn’t try to change him or her to be more like you.
That doesn’t mean you have to accept everything you don’t like. For instance, your wife might want to take an expensive family vacation every year, one you feel you can’t afford. Or maybe your husband loves “Star Wars” and collects every movie, toy and piece of merchandise available.
Trying to come up with a compromise where less money goes toward the vacation or the “Star Wars” merchandise is perfectly reasonable. But telling a spouse that a family vacation isn’t important or that “Star Wars” is a stupid thing to spend money on would mean you’re the unreasonable one.
“You can’t change a personal preference,” Puhn says. “And if every time your partner brings up a personal preference and you try to beat it out of them, it’s you who lacks the communication skills.”
Cordova has a similar take. “We get locked into this place where we feel the only way we can survive is to get my partner to change,” he says, adding that if you did get your partner to change, you might diminish them. Besides, if you can accept your partner’s difference in spending habits, “then we’re out of that defensive crouch, and you’re in a much better position to collaborate and problem solve,” he says.
Which, of course, begs the question: Sad as it may be to consider, if you’re married to someone who is your polar financial opposite, would you have been better off not marrying?
Not necessarily, especially if you take it to the extremes. “When partners are different, they can complement each other, and it can sometimes be much more challenging for a couple who are like-minded,” Cordova says.
He sums things up this way: “If you have two spenders, nobody’s worried about overspending. And if you have two savers, then nobody’s going to get a vacation.”