Why Couples Fight About Money. [Hint: It's Not What You Think]
Marriage and money... Cash flow in coupling... It's almost always a point of contention in committed relationships. And the reason why? It's because no two people relate to money in exactly the same way, and these differences ultimately lead to friction. Money is a placeholder for loads of our projected desires, fears, wishes, and hopes. That is, money is loaded.
While you may have linked up for life with your spouse in part because you share the same values, I almost guarantee you that deep down at the root of it, your values around money aren't even close to identical. The different relationship with money that each partner brings into the romantic relationship inevitably can cause tension or worse.
Today I'm going to talk to you about what money fights are REALLY about. I'll also shed light on some of the reasons that couples commonly hide their spending or conceal purchases from their spouse. Then, we'll get into the nitty gritty of how this can be improved.
The fact of the matter is: it has NOTHING to do with how much money you have. Whether rich, poor, or anywhere in between, money tensions in marriage have zero to do with the actual money! And everything to do with....
When couples fight about money they are always actually fighting about something else.
On a primary level, a couple is fighting about their own beliefs about what money means to them. Things get escalated because they do not feel their partner innately possesses the same relationship to money, and now it's feeling like an ideological difference (personal and therefore offensive).
But on a secondary and far less conscious level, the fight is absolutely not about money in any way, shape, or form. Cash, credit, or check has no bearing in the subconscious message that's being tossed between partners during a money fight. Rather, the fight is actually about a scary potential core belief system you hold about your partner that reflects your worst fears about who they might be as a person.
When you fight with your spouse about money, you are actually upset because your spouse is different from:
b) who you thought they were, and,
c) who you need them to be.
Money issues bring all those deep lingering negative feelings about your partner to the surface. That is, money is just the scapegoat through which these totally unrelated concerns are now being expressed.
For example, James and Liz have been married for five years. James grew up in solid middle class family where money wasn't necessarily tight, but where using your hands and getting things done yourself was valued -- including washing the car. He's always been irked that Liz takes her car to the car wash. He makes a concerted effort to hand-wash both of their cars himself on the weekends to intervene in, and prevent, the necessitating of, her tendency to bring her car to the car wash.
This past month, James has noticed "Scrub n' Shine Car Wash" on their credit card bill twice. Liz never told him she'd brought her car to the car wash. James approaches Liz about the bill; he's ticked off she's spending this kind of money on car detailing. But he explodes on her in a way that's out of proportion with getting one's car washed. Why does he explode like this? It's because he's built up an image in his head that reflects his worst fears of who Liz might be: irresponsible, unwilling to work for what she needs, above getting her hands dirty, and worst of all, possibly thinking she's better than him and his values. Liz taking her car to the car wash is just one more thing that confirms his subconscious, hidden concerns. When they fight, the fight is about all of those OTHER, more personal, worries. Not about the actual car wash spending.
And what about when couples hide spending from each other, or conceal a major purchase?
There are many reasons a spouse would hide a purchase or a credit card bill from their spouse -- but the main reasons are shame and fear. Shame is often felt as shame of wanting the purchase or a certain lifestyle; shame of feeling worthy of the spending; shame of being out of control of one's spending -- shame takes many forms. Shame is what then informs fear.
And secrecy about our money is mostly rooted in fear. Fear of your partner's response to you. Fear of not being able to adequately communicate. Fear of being judged. Fear of having enough or not having enough. Fear of repercussion. Fear of being misunderstood.
When spending or a big purchase has happened and it's been kept a secret here's my advice to women and couples I see in my practice: come clean. To have a relationship that is rooted in mutual trust, integrity, and respect, partners must exemplify trust, integrity, and respect (even if it happens slightly after the misdemeanor). Concealing truths or spending behaviors is indicative of larger problems, that if left unattended, over time can lead to major problems or even the demise of a relationship.
But how to come clean? Start by asking for open and honest communication in both directions. Tell your spouse you have something you need to tell them, but then also ask your spouse if you can share why you felt you had to keep it a secret. Ask to have this exchange without defenses up, and agree to drop your defenses, too. Avoid attacking or blaming language, and be willing to hear their response to your hidden spending. Upset responses are to be expected here, but ensure it stays respectful or take a time out and try again.
Work on your financial concerns and goals together and come to an agreement about what constitutes spending that you can each do on your own without reporting back or being asked about repeatedly, and what type of spending or purchase requires a mutual check-in before it's made.
In general, to communicate more effectively about money its important to bring your money concerns AND your relationship concerns to the table, both early and often. Do this as a regular check-in throughout your relationship, as income changes, life circumstances change, and spending changes.
Use feeling words to describe how you think about money, like, "Growing up, I never knew how much money we ever had. I guess underneath it all, I'm worried (feeling) that no matter how much we work, we'll never quite have enough. Logically I know we'll be fine, I can't shake that fear (emotional impact) It's whats in the way of me feeling I can really let loose when we're out on the weekend, and its why I get on you when you order the expensive drinks (resulting behavior)".
Be honest with your spouse. Don't get defensive when you hear what they have to say. Accept their disclosure with open arms, then ask them what they need from you to be helpful. This is the best type of collaboration and communication. Since your money arguments are not about money, but are rather about disconnection and interpersonal tension, this is your opportunity as a couple to do what you can to get on the same team and on the same page.
What I know you'll find is that you're on the same team in the bank, in your behaviors, in your attitudes, in your life, and ultimately, in the love and respect you have for one another.
Lauren L. Drago, MSEd, LMHC, LPC is the founder of Lauren Drago Therapy in Old Saybrook, CT and in greater CT, NY & PA. She specializes in working with smart, insightful and capable women to overcome stress, anxiety, loss of identity, self-limiting beliefs, perfectionism, marriage strain, and the pressure of "trying to do it all." Lauren has a passion for helping others to achieve the happy, fulfilling, productive, and meaningful life they deserve by changing how they experience and understand their world. She believes that every woman can and should live out her personal definition of her own best life. Follow Lauren on Facebook, and call (860) 339-6515 to schedule your free initial consultation.