People ask me all the time if fighting about money is one of the most common problems in a marriage. But surprisingly to many, I don’t believe money is the root cause of many marital problems. Financial disagreements, though common, are more accurately a symptom of upbringing and other underlying problems that exist in relationships. The money itself is not the real issue.
So how can you understand the money problems you are facing and why they may cause problems in your relationship? In addition, how can you consider how money may impact your relationship in the future? There are four questions you should consider when trying to understand how financial issues impact your relationship.
1. What is your “true currency of money”?
In other words, what does money mean or symbolize to each of you? Frequently, money means or symbolizes something different to you than your spouse. There are several ways to consider what money may mean to you. For example, if one of you was raised in a family that generally had sufficient means to cover most things, money may not have been a big stress. In contrast, the other was raised in a family where money was tight and sacrifices were a regular part of life. Money likely meant very different things for each family. The spouse from the more affluent family may not stress as much when spending money, while the one from the less affluent family may feel extreme anxiety even when buying groceries. What was money like in your family growing up? What other experiences with money have you had in your life that may have shaped what it symbolizes for you? If both you and your spouse can explore these questions together, you may get some clarity on why financial friction exists. Make sure you understand what money means to your spouse.
2. Do you believe the money you earn is yours?
A common trend I see with couples who argue about money has to do with whom the money belongs to. If you feel the money you earn should be yours, I suggest you try to see any money earned by you or your spouse as shared. Often a spouse is not employed or may make less money than you. That doesn’t mean he or she is of less value than you. One indicator to consider is how you manage bank accounts in the relationships. The majority of couples I see that complain about money disagreements have separate bank accounts. They don’t want to share their money for many reasons, most of which have to do with seeing it as theirs. I suggest using only shared accounts. If you are hesitant, are you really willing to see the money as shared? Or are you just being selfish?
3. How do you talk about money with your spouse?
Money is one of those touchy issues that couples too often avoid. The avoidance is often rooted in not wanting to upset the other person, not wanting to face the fears that may be related to the current financial situation, or not wanting to ask permission to do something with the money. In all these cases, the avoidance will only make things worse. Even if the outlook is difficult, avoiding it doesn’t change reality. Rather, avoiding it just ensures you will not be on the same page as your spouse in dealing with the issue. If you are worried about permission, perhaps you already know the answer. It is important to maintain transparency and make decisions in a unified way. Make a budget together, focusing on the goals and desires of everyone.
4. Do you spend more money than you earn?
The simplest way to avoid money problems in relationships is simply to live within your means. The boat, vacation, bigger house, or renovation may look appealing to you and those around you. However, you should ask yourself: is the stress of paying for it really worth the toll on your relationship? Nothing is more valuable than a healthy marriage.
Dr. Jonathan Swinton, PhD, is a licensed marriage and family therapist at Swinton Counseling in Utah. Visit swintoncounseling.com or call 801-647-9951 to learn more.