August 17, 2012

Money Conflicts and Marriage: Tips for Keeping the Peace

It may surprise some folks that money, even more than in-laws or sex, is the number one thing that couples fight about. Learning how to deal with financial differences is important because if unattended, squabbles over money can lead to worse relational problems like emotional shut downs or deception. Remember the way Lucy and Ethel used to try to hide things from Rick and Fred on the I Love Lucy Show ? While making for good comedy, deception does not work well in a healthy relationship. Today we're going to discuss why that is and offer some tips to avoid nasty struggles over money with your mate.

The Psychology of Money

Marital conflicts over money are difficult because they are not about what they seem.  In order to understand what is actually going on, partners must be aware that all fights about money will touch upon deep emotion.  It is important  to realize that the real significance of comments like, "Your spending will put us in the poor house." or "You're just a tight wad who's no fun" are not literal but psychological.  Before one can productively negotiate a solution to the immediate conflict, the underlying emotion behind the fireworks must be  identified and decoded.  

Specifically,  money has symbolic meaning which touches two primal emotional needs:

Safety/Security and Freedom/Pleasure.  Conflicts arise when either of these needs are threatened.  For example while spending money relates to the experience of freedom and pleasure, it may also threaten a sense of financial security. Likewise, while saving or not spending  addresses security needs, it may also deprive one's need for pleasure or restrict one's freedom to act.

It is ironic but nonetheless true that folks who are more tipped to one end of the spend/save spectrum are attracted to and usually wind up with those who are on the other end. Spenders often marry savers. Thus the root cause of many fights over money is that an important psychological need is being neglected or threatened.

Common Mistakes in Dealing with Money Conflicts  

--  Struggling over who is right and who is wrong or who is going to win and get their own way.

These approaches distract attention away from the actual dispute. Likewise, in a  win/lose approach one of the partner's concerns is judged illegitimate and will not be addressed. Ignoring a partner's feelings can result in resentment and sabotage of the agreement.

-- Ignoring each partner's feelings by prematurely focusing on the merits of problem usually means that  emotional upsets will cloud judgment and make reasonable negotiations impossible. As a result, instead of reaching productive agreements, unproductive personal attacks are more likely.

--  Continuing to talk after tempers have flared only results in wounded feelings and cannot lead  to a lasting solution.

Three things to remember when talking about money.

1. Be aware that money discussions often involve fear and anger. They are psychologically complex. If not approached properly, talking about money can result in irrational and unproductive arguments. Differences about money are not just about money or the given particulars of an argument. They touch upon primal needs for security and freedom.

2.Don't talk about money if you're angry. If things become heated, calm the upset first.

-- Decode heated remarks. Don't take them personally.

-- Identify the specific underlying emotional issues of each partner. Knowing a person's personal history and personality style can help unearth these concerns.    

-- Empathize and restore reasonAcknowledge, express understanding of and respect the legitimacy of each person's feelings. Empathy is a powerful way to calm things down and restore reason to the discussion.  Don't attempt to problem solve or negotiate until both partners are in a reasonable place.

3. Resolve conflicts through a Win/Win Approach

-- Don't drag in the past or confuse the discussion with multiple problems.

-- Clearly define the problem to be resolved.

-- Strike deals in which the trade-offs respond to each person's needs.  Both partners must feel that their concerns have been addressed to have a lasting solution which avoids resentment and or sabotage.   

When folks get upset over money issues, they lose empathy and consideration for their partner. Taking some time to realize that talking about money is inherently difficult and that it shouldn't be attempted when one is not in a reasonable mood. A reasonable mood will reveal the consideration and love partners feel for one another and make finding lasting solutions much easier. 

The Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC prepared these remarks for Bridge Street, 8 15 2012

 

To Archives