Money is one of the biggest sources of marital discord—and it can be one of the toughest to resolve.
That’s because when couples argue about how to spend money, they’re not just debating the issue at hand, such as how much they can put on the credit card each month, or whether they can really afford that big vacation. They’re giving voice to subconscious anxieties that even they may not be aware of—and bumping up against the unarticulated fears of their partners.
Maybe it was a childhood of poverty—or just the constant fear of poverty—that leaves a spouse hating to spend money. Maybe a first spouse’s secret bank account now is causing distrust in a second marriage.
Even benign past experiences can lead to unintended consequences years later. Dave Jetson, founder of Jetson Counseling in Rapid City, S.D., says that his first memory of money is getting a quarter from a cousin at age four or five. His mother immediately took it away for safekeeping, he says. “Her heart and her intention were in the right place, but what that taught me was, the next time I get the money, I’m going to spend it, because I don’t want it taken away.”
How do couples keep from stumbling over all that emotional baggage every time they need to talk about their bills or their budget? One place to start is to simply acknowledge that everyone reacts emotionally to money, and then take the time to find out what early memories may be driving each spouse’s behavior.
“If you realize that your spouse grew up in poverty and as a result of that they have this intense fear around not having enough money, all of a sudden their cheapness takes on an entirely new light,” says Brad Klontz, a psychologist, certified financial planner and associate professor at Kansas State University.
But be warned: There are no hard-and-fast rules for predicting how specific events influence a person’s approach to money. Mr. Klontz says he has seen people with the attitude, “There will never be enough money” compulsively hoard cash. But he has also seen that attitude “lead to people who’ve never saved a dime and they’re in debt [because they think], ‘There will never be enough, so why try?’ It gets really specific. It’s not an easy, ‘You have this, so you do that.’”
A couple who does the work of delving into their money patterns can gain understanding and potentially forestall arguments, and reach compromises. Here are five common areas of conflict, and how therapists work with couples to resolve them.
This is likely the most common source of financial tension in a relationship: One spouse tends to spend impulsively, without thought of the future, the other wants to scrimp as much as possible. The conflict can take many forms, but the roots—and the solutions—are rarely simple.
Mr. Klontz worked with one couple that was experiencing a clear conflict: The wife would suggest minor luxuries—such as eating out—only to find the husband reacting in anger.
The husband’s irritation with his wife was rooted in a deep-seated fear, Mr. Klontz says. He grew up working class—including a stint when his single mother was on public assistance—and he was worried about ending up there again. “He grew up with a sense that there isn’t enough, that we’re poor and other people are rich,” Mr. Klontz says, adding that he also has seen people from that type of background who squandered their money because they felt helpless, as though there will never be enough.
In this case, Mr. Klontz says, the husband had lived frugally prior to getting married, saving 40% of his income for retirement. Meanwhile, his house had few furnishings. “He had literally one plate, a fork, a knife,” Mr. Klontz says.
For her part, the wife grew up in an upper-middle-class family. She was given a car for her 16th birthday, and she didn’t have to work as a teenager. Her take on money? Everything will be all right. She was easygoing. She also hadn’t saved a penny. There was time for that later. “That’s a trap,” Mr. Klontz says. “If you look at lifestyle inflation, when is there a surplus of money to start saving?”
Plus, he says, “she valued comfort.” And those values ran up against her husband’s fears. For example, early in the marriage, she wanted to buy a couch. That caused stress in the relationship. “There was a lot of conflict around money, because for every 1% she wanted to spend versus save, it caused him an anxiety attack,” Mr. Klontz says. “In his family, nobody had saved. His extended family was on welfare. There was a lot of fear that would happen to him and his kids.”
“He was very much driven out of fear,” Mr. Klontz says. “He’d become really intense in the conversation and she’d be like, ‘Geez, all I want to do is go out to dinner.’ There was all this energy around it. And he saw her as not being on the same page on the importance of saving.”
The solution? At first, learning how to listen. Mr. Klontz had each of them answer questions such as “What’s your biggest fear?” and then had the other spouse repeat the answer exactly to make sure they were really paying attention to what the other was saying. Talking about their stories helped the couple shift from anger and blame to compassion, Mr. Klontz says. For the wife, it was, “I get why you’re so anxious,” he says.
The husband was feeling defensive, but the conversation “helped release it for him,” Mr. Klontz says. He says the husband realized, “I don’t want to create a life of poverty for us. I want us to have nice things. A couch is more comfortable than foldout chairs.”
“The work for him was shifting his belief that ‘there will never be enough’ to one of ‘we need a little bit more of a balanced approach.’ As a financial planner and psychologist, it’s really tough to say, ‘You need to save less,’ but that’s actually what needed to happen,” Mr. Klontz says. “If you looked at his life, it looked like he was very poor when in fact he wasn’t. He was making money. For him, it was recognizing that his wife was providing him an opportunity to have a better life and not just save it all until he was 70.”
After Mr. Klontz reviewed their long-term goals, the couple reached a compromise: The husband would reduce his savings rate to 20%—their financial plan showed that to be adequate—and the wife would start saving 20%. Also, the husband agreed that the wife could make spending decisions, such as buying a couch or planning a vacation.
Another helpful strategy: setting specific goals, says Amanda Clayman, a New York-based financial therapist. “A big area where I see a lot of conflict is where people haven’t defined what they actually want to happen,” she says. “They spend all of their energy and focus critiquing the other person’s point of view.”
Simply saying, “We’re terrible savers. We need to save more,” won’t help a couple move forward, she says. Set a specific savings goal, she advises, and acknowledge how it will affect day-to-day spending.
Disagreements over how much support to give an adult child can result in secrecy, with one parent providing money on the sly because the other parent insists it’s time to cut off the child, says Susan Zimmerman, a licensed therapist and co-founder of Mindful Asset Planning in Minneapolis. “That’s never a good situation to get into,” she says.
Imagine, for example, a wife is giving money to her 26-year-old daughter, who has graduated from college and has a decent job but still runs out of money every month. The wife is not telling her husband about these gifts, because the husband feels it’s time for the daughter to stand on her own two feet.
Ms. Zimmerman’s first step is to make sure the couple agrees the secrecy is a problem that needs resolving. Then, she introduces the idea that giving too much can be harmful to the child’s growth.
Her goal is to help the couple come up with rules they can both live by, including how much money is acceptable to give, in what circumstances—such as a job loss—and for how long.
Ms. Zimmerman says that it’s also important for the parent providing the support to understand why he or she is doing it. It may be entirely benign. But it also may be driven by a sense of discomfort from the fact that the parent doesn’t like the child being mad at the parent.
The parent may have internalized the lesson early in childhood that “I’m only valuable or safe if I’m pleasing everyone all the time,” Ms. Zimmerman says. To keep everyone happy, that parent becomes secretive to avoid disapproval. “It’s not unstressful, but it’s less painful to that [person] than having anyone disapproving of me,” she says.
For that parent, Ms. Zimmerman says, it’s important to recognize the need to override that discomfort and focus on the more important objective: helping the child become financially responsible, and to remember that giving too much can create an unhealthy dependence.
One simple strategy for a couple struggling to discuss the issue: Each spouse writes down the amount they think is acceptable to give. When they reveal what they’ve written, Ms. Zimmerman asks: “Where do you think that number came from?”
Often, the answer is related to a childhood memory, but it might also be an estimate of how much the spouse can spare every month. There is no wrong answer, she says, and every answer will help the spouses start to understand each other better.
One spouse wants to buy a new dining-room set; the other wants to go on a luxurious vacation. One wants to buy a sailboat; the other wants to renovate the house.
Such a conflict over big-ticket expenditures may arise because each spouse hears the same words, but interprets them differently. When the husband, for instance, says he wants a sailboat, Ms. Clayman says, in some cases he really is saying, “I work hard. I deserve this.” His wife, however, doesn’t know what’s behind her husband’s desire because he isn’t spelling it out.
Then, when she questions the logic of buying a huge discretionary item, his reaction is, “Why don’t you think I deserve it?” Ms. Clayman says. He doesn’t want to explain what he’s feeling on an emotional level, so he might say, “I make enough to afford this.” The subtext is: “Don’t argue with me about this.”
Likewise, the wife may feel a similar sense of entitlement when she argues for a home renovation. Or maybe there’s a motive that stretches further back; perhaps she’s constantly trying to outrun a childhood where she had very little. But, again, she doesn’t spell any of that out, so when her husband questions the need for a renovation, she hears her husband’s opposition as his rejecting her—a common reaction when people face disapproval of their money choices. The wife, Ms. Clayman says, is feeling: “You don’t see me. You don’t care about my needs.”
The key to compromise is affirming and validating your spouse’s values and needs, experts say. Olivia Mellan, a money and relationships coach and author of books on money behavior, guides couples to use three steps: mirroring, validation and empathy. Mirroring, like Mr. Klontz’s method, entails repeating back verbatim what the other spouse says about a money goal.
Then the listener validates that point of view and considers what that spouse’s emotional state might be. Here’s how a spouse might validate and empathize with one who wants a sailboat: “It makes sense that you want a sailboat. You love the ocean, and that way you can be on the ocean as much as you want. I imagine you’re feeling frustrated about how long you’ve waited for a sailboat.”
The process is repeated for the other spouse. That kind of conversation, Ms. Mellan says, is the gateway to compromise.
“If you’re stressed about something, you will always revert to your survival mode, which is always dysfunctional,” Ms. Mellan says. “The fear mode is me against you. We are enemies. The thriving mode is the nonstress mode.”
Blended families are ripe for conflicts over money. The spouses typically come into it with different levels of savings and income. And they may have different ideas about how they want to treat their children. When those different attitudes collide, that can lead to heated struggles that force deep emotions to the surface.
Mr. Jetson offers an example, drawn from his work with Rick Kahler, a certified financial planner and founder of Kahler Financial Group in Rapid City, S.D.
Two spouses were struggling over how to divvy up the money among the stepchildren in an estate plan. (The couple did not have children together, but each had children from a previous marriage.) They had a prenuptial agreement that stipulated how their premarital assets would be divided, but the couple couldn’t agree on how to allocate assets that they had acquired since they had been married.
The spouses had agreed to set up a trust such that, in the event of one spouse’s death, the other would be supported, with the money going to all of the kids upon the second spouse’s death. But there was a sticking point: The wife was worried that after her husband’s death, his children would find a way to write her children out of the trust. “She was insisting her kids would get their share immediately upon his death, and the remainder [would go] to his kids upon her death,” Mr. Kahler says.
The conflict, Mr. Jetson says, was less about money and more about emotional issues, stemming from a lack of trust. Deep down, the wife feared her husband cared more about his children than about her and her children. She was afraid that meant her children wouldn’t be cared for.
Mr. Jetson helped the couple talk through the issues. “When they got emotionally heard, the shift occurred, and it was a done deal,” he says. Both spouses agreed that upon one spouse’s death, the funds would to go into trust for the survivor’s support and then be disseminated to the children equally after the surviving spouse’s death.
Other sources of conflict may go even deeper. For example, a father who, as a child, felt that a sibling was his parents’ favorite might as an adult have a strong need for fairness, Mr. Jetson says. That can translate into a sharp focus on making sure that all of his children are bequeathed an equal amount of money in a will.
But that focus may bump up against his second wife’s urge to lavish more on the children from the new marriage, because she believes her husband’s previous wife should provide more monetary support for the children from the earlier marriage.
Arguments over who’s controlling the money often occur because couples never discuss how they will make money decisions. Many fail to talk about money before they get married—that’s considered unromantic—and after the wedding they fall into a pattern where one partner handles the finances, Ms. Zimmerman says.
But even though they’re not talking about it, money decisions are getting made, and each spouse is proceeding with his or her unspoken expectations. For example, the spouse who handles the brokerage account might invest in high-risk stocks, while the other assumes the portfolio is well-diversified. After, say, a stock-market crash, arguments ensue.
“If two individuals have conflicting expectations, then when they hit upon the first big disagreement it turns into an additional bullet point of confusion,” Ms. Zimmerman says, adding that couples engage in “magical thinking.” We love each other, so we must have the same goals.
Often, the spouse who relinquishes control over the daily money management is the “saver,” says Ms. Clayman, the financial therapist. He or she doesn’t pay attention to the daily spending, and then gets angry at the “spender” when things don’t go according to his or her unspoken plan.
Conflicts can also arise when spouses have “a fairly significant difference in their income and one believes, ‘If I make more money, I get to have more decision-making power,’ ” Ms. Zimmerman says.
In other cases, the spouse controlling the finances may engage in practices that baffle the other. Ms. Zimmerman recalls one couple where the wife was shocked to discover that her husband would throw bills away if they were short on money. “That was just beyond her imagination,” Ms. Zimmerman says.
Even what might be considered “normal” money practices may surprise a spouse, because he or she grew up differently. But even if you’re surprised at your spouse’s behavior, it’s important to keep the shock to a minimum, Ms. Zimmerman says. “Let’s look at this from a curiosity perspective rather than ‘who’s doing something wrong’ perspective. The trick is to make sure to keep defensiveness to a minimum, if not completely nonexistent.”
She asks couples to consider what money messages they received growing up, not so that they judge those experiences as good or bad, but to “really help people learn about themselves on the money front,” Ms. Zimmerman says. When clients divulge those money lessons, she then asks: “Is that how you model your money behavior? In what way are you that way?”
Ms. Coombes is a writer in San Francisco. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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