Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University
Here’s something you may already know: many couples struggle with money issues in their relationship. In fact, you and your partner may be experiencing problems of your own around the issue of money. If you’re like the average couple, the struggle usually centers on the different approaches you both have about spending and saving money.
Here’s something you may not know: although money gets much credit for breaking relationship harmony, it’s rarely the core issue between partners. This may be hard for you to believe. Yet, imagine your money as a symptom of something larger. This may help to explain why constant bickering about money rarely resolves anything. The more you focus on correcting the symptom instead of the root problem, the greater your frustration and possible damage to your relationship.
So what is the root problem? Fear. Money is used in a limitless number of ways to calm fears we have. This is especially evident in many relationships. But instead of letting money tear your relationship apart, you can actually use it to heal the relationship if you’re willing to follow some solid principles.
Own how you use money
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Here’s one couple, among many, I’ve seen in counseling who think that money is the root of their marital problems. John is a money conscious guy who knows where every penny he spends goes. He would like to know how his wife spends all of her pennies. He is constantly nagging her to keep receipts, stay within the budget, record the checks she writes, etc. Mary doesn’t share John’s concern about keeping tight records. She works hard and feels she’s entitled to spend what she wants with her hard earned money. The tension between them has escalated to the point of getting professional help to save their marriage.
John thinks the problem is Mary’s lack of responsibility. Mary’s states her main problem as being married to a “control freak.” While there may be kernels of truth in what each are saying, pointing the finger of blame accomplishes little.
A far better approach is for John and Mary to begin exploring their individual, but often unconscious, motives with money. John, for instance, could ask himself why he needs to track every dollar spent. His first thoughts might be to save for retirement, pay off their mortgage, afford nice vacations, etc. But if he could be honest enough with himself he would see that his need to control money is really about his fear. Money gives him a sense of security. When his wife spends freely and seems unconcerned about their finances, it threatens that security he is working so hard to maintain.
Mary, on the other hand, could ask herself what purpose her impulse buying serves. With some candid reflection she would find that spending money is a way for her to feel better about herself. When she feels down, sad or discouraged she is most prone to shop. Spending money is a way of treating herself, of sidestepping the emotion she would rather not deal with.
Until John and Mary are willing to look at their own fears and shortcomings they will probably continue to blame one another for their money problems. But if they’re willing to take ownership for their contribution to the marital money struggle they can move toward closing the gap between them.
Talk about your fears
So ownership stops the blame game. But now you must tell your partner about your part in the conflict. This accomplishes two things. First, it takes your partner off the hot seat. Up to this point your message has been, “If you would just change your ways, this problem would be solved.” Now you’re saying, “I have been contributing to our money problems by…” This is risky, to be sure. Your spouse could respond in a condemning manner, making you the scapegoat for the entire problem. But if you handle it correctly this can easily be redirected in a more productive way.
The second benefit of talking with your partner is that it opens up an honest dialogue for understanding each other. Self-honesty draws us toward the other person. There is no need to defend yourself because no blame is being cast. Are your repetitive thoughts causing distress and anxiety? Take our repetitive thoughts test to gain a better understanding of their impact on your well-being.
John might say it this way: “Mary, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I get so upset with you about money issues. I’m learning that I use money as a way to feel secure about myself. But the harder I work to control our money the more it seems to control me. And I don’t want my need for control to ruin our relationship…” Notice John hasn’t taken responsibility for the whole problem, only his part. This leaves Mary with an opportunity to both empathize with John and share her part. If she doesn’t, John could ask, “What part do you see yourself playing in our money issues?” Since he has taken the lead to disclose and create a non-defensive atmosphere, this question is appropriate.
When you can both discuss your fears openly in a non-judgmental way, you have established a new foundation for your relationship. You are now working together instead of against one another. Real healing is now possible.
Work toward cooperative money habits
Once you’ve taken ownership for your part and shared it with your partner, you can more easily work out money management habits that benefit both of you. Don’t try and make your partner think like you do about finances. A better way is to agree on certain money principles that give freedom for individual expression. For instance, John wants to live within a budget, Mary wants the freedom to spend on occasion. Within the budget, Mary can be given a certain amount of discretionary cash to use for whatever she wants without having to ask John or report the figures. This helps John stay on track with the budget while giving Mary some money to spend freely.
Another way to use money to enhance your relationship is to designate a certain amount from each paycheck toward a date. This could be used toward a weekly outing together or saved toward a special get-away. View the money spent on your relationship as an investment not an expense. Think of money as a resource to help you enhance your relationship instead of something to hoard or spend frivolously. Choose wisely and work cooperatively in deciding how you will invest in your relationship.
Money is hard to keep in perspective. Literally every day we are pressed with the message that money brings happiness, security, power, and contentment. The truth is that it gives us none of those things. It only gives us choices. Choose to look at how you might be tangled up in money. Then talk with your partner about how it affects your relationship with one another. Then stop the eroding effect it may be having on your relationship. Those are the type of choices that bring true, lasting contentment.
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