Valentine’s day is often associated with courtship, roses, and chocolates. But are you and your soul mate destined for a long and happy future together? According to an article in Psychology Today, the “frequency of money disputes remains the single best predictor of divorce.” This ranked higher than other common fight topics such as child rearing, sex, household chores, and dealing with in-laws. Why are money fights so significant? And how can we have better
fights discussions about money?
Why Money Disputes are Significant
Money disputes, like all fights, have several layers to them. Whereas the surface layer might be whether or how much to spend on a particular item, the deeper layers reflect the core values and priorities of each individual.
Money has different meanings to different people. For some, it means security. For others, it means power, fame/popularity, self-worth, or control/influence, which are all characteristics of a person’s identity.
Some see money as freedom, while others see it as enslavement. Money can be thought of as a scarce resource. It can be a measure of success, or when gifted, of love.
Although money can be seen as “a tool”, it is unlike other tools in which there is a specific purpose. Money is more of a “multi-purpose tool” which can be used in varying amounts, and for varying purposes and intentions.
And to make matters more complicated, money has social and cultural implications. So while you and your partner have your own differing perspectives to sort out, you also have to deal with societal interpretations of the meaning of money.
Money also changes meaning, purpose, and significance depending on the time frame under consideration. Money in hand is perceived as more valuable than future money, which is often discounted.
So when couples fight about money, it has to do with the deeper interpretation of what value and meaning is attributed to money. And it is this deeper layer where there must be a reconciliation of differences, otherwise there will be misunderstanding and marital conflict.
Can You Just Avoid The Topic of Money?
Sure, you might be able to sweep it under the rug for a while. Many couples I know get separate bank accounts for this very reason. Fighting about money is uncomfortable. And so why not just separate everything from the start and not ever have to deal with the topic?
Except that it never works out that way. Especially in marriage, when you have joint commitments – children, mortgage, family health issues, bills, etc. The topic will come up eventually, and the longer you wait, the more ill-equipped you will be to deal with it. Especially when it comes up as a result of a financial emergency, as they often do.
When it comes to arguing, especially on the topic of money, there are ways to do it that are constructive and ways that are destructive. And the more practice you have at it, the better your outcome will be.
Some Guidelines on How to Fight About Money
Let me first say that I don’t claim to be a relationship expert. But I have been married for nearly 15 years. I’ve been told that for a millennial, “that’s an eternity”.
Here are some guidelines that my husband and I use when it comes to fights. We fight maybe once a month, and we only argued over money in the first few months of our relationship. And that leads right into the guidelines:
1. Tackle the money issue early on in the relationship.
Because money can be an intrinsic part of our identity, it might be worthwhile to suss it out early on, when you’re still dopey-eyed, madly in love and extra forgiving.
Find out what meanings you and your partner give to money. Discover what each other’s insecurities are around money. And talk about your goals, values, and wishes, and the role money might play to achieve them.
Many times, these conversations are considered “too heavy” during the courtship phase. But that’s exactly when you should be discussing them. To me, money fights are the best kinds of fights to have early on because they tell a lot about a person’s beliefs and core values. And being compatible in this area is a huge advantage if you are looking for a long-term relationship.
2. Don’t make it personal.
Too often, blame and fault become the focus of and fuel for the argument. Yet most of the time, the fight has nothing to do with blame or some character flaw. It has to do with hurt feelings that were often unintentional. They may have resulted because of a misunderstanding or good intentions gone awry.
Sometimes, there may have been no meaning or intention behind an action at all. It’s just a difference of perspective or interpretation resulting from two people having two different sets of eyes and two different brains.
But what usually happens in fights is that one or both parties make it personal. When it’s personal, it becomes all about diminishing or injuring a person’s self-concept (i.e., our story about ourselves).
One person will say or think, “you did it on purpose,” and the other will get hurt because he/she feels blamed. Then that person will say or think, “oh, so you think I’m that type of person. I can’t believe you think so lowly of me.” And then as it goes on and on and on, there is a loss of intimacy and a sense of alienation.
3. Avoid extremes.
Being too rigid or extreme when it comes to money can be problematic. For example, one person having all the knowledge or control of money and the other having none. Or the more common stereotype of one person being a spendthrift and the other being a cheapskate.
Being too rigid when it comes to spending habits is also not good. For example, some people “absolutely must have” certain things, while others are so determined not to spend over a pre-designated amount no matter what, and will go to extreme lengths to make sure of it.
Finally, using extreme language can also be a problem. Saying things like “you always…” or “you never…” are examples of extreme language.
4. Be quick to both apologise.
Many people hate apologising because they think it equates to an admission of guilt and fault, because that’s how courtrooms treat it. But you’re not in a courtroom. You’re in a relationship. You’re on the same team. And because of this, it doesn’t really matter if one person wins because the team loses. Because you both are on the same team, it doesn’t do any good to be adversarial or to seek punishment. Apologising is a step toward coming together and mutually solving a problem.
So in relationships, I treat apologies to mean (1) that I recognise that bad things happened or feelings were hurt (intentionally or unintentionally), and (2) that I, in some way, had a role in it. By saying I had a role simply means that if I could do it all over again, I could have done things differently to express my intentions, clarify any misunderstandings, or alleviate any hurt.
We all have flaws, weaknesses, and blindspots. So apologising shows our humility and our acceptance that we are not perfect. And sometimes we do things that hurt others, even though we love them and we don’t mean to hurt them.
More importantly, just by apologising, we validate the other person’s hurt feelings. We indirectly say that we understand why they’re upset. It isn’t about being “right” or “wrong”, or even about agreement. It’s about understanding and validating other people’s feelings. You may not agree with their feelings, but you can’t deny them either. So the best thing to do to heal and move on is to say sorry.
5. Work toward unified money guidelines and unified long-term goals.
While it’s good to appreciate each other’s differences, perspectives, and beliefs, ideally, your long-term goals and values should be similar. How do you want to raise your children? What kind of education would you want for them? How much time and attention would you want to give to them?
What is your idea of a good life? A fulfilling career? A successful marriage? What does having “enough” mean to you? What are your attitudes toward debt?
How do you envision your retirement? What does it mean to feel secure? To be financially free?
What does it mean to be responsible to your ageing parents? How much are you willing to do for them if they cannot take care of themselves? What happens if you cannot take care of yourself?
Then there are the very difficult conversations around disease, death, and moving on. Ideally, these types of long-term desires and beliefs should be compatible since they can equally affect both parties.
There are entire books written about this subject of relationships and money, so this list is not meant to be complete. And even though I’ve only listed 5 guidelines that are pretty straightforward, just doing these 5 well is something I still fail at.
But these tips have helped me. And if you want a long and happy future with your soul mate, talking about the deeper meaning of money, whether to save it or to spend it, is one “fight” you shouldn’t run away from.