If my husband and I are out with another couple and there is a lull in the conversation, we can usually spark interest by bringing up the fact that we lived in a mortuary during the early years of our marriage. Back then, newlywed and college poor, we jumped on the opportunity to live in a mortuary apartment and answer the phone at nights and on weekends in exchange for free rent and utilities. As a bonus, we had a natural backdrop to create a spook alley on the way up the stairs to our front door. We felt so lucky.
When my husband called my father and asked if he could propose to me, my father replied, “Go write up a financial plan for how you’re going to pay for it and call me back,” trying to scare him off. Undeterred, we jointly created a proposal for how we would support ourselves through college while married. We spent the entire summer working in California, saving all of our money for the upcoming year. We were so disciplined about hoarding our paychecks and not going out that my mom handed me a wad of cash and begged me to “go on a date already–you’re driving me crazy being here all the time.”
I had spent the previous year as a family financial planning major, believing that I would have a niche as a marriage therapist with a financial planning background. I changed my major when a graduate school advisor told me if I really wanted to be accepted to a top marriage therapy program, I would need a bachelor’s degree geared toward therapy experience. That financial planning year was valuable, however, in teaching me the importance of having a unified financial plan in marriage, not just for financial security, but for increased marital unity and happiness.
If someone asked you what married couples argue about the most, money would likely be at or near the top of your list. Although many publications purport that money is the leading cause of divorce or the number one conflict in marriage, studies with any statistical rigor addressing the topic are extremely scarce and don’t necessarily support that assertion.
One relatively recent diary study, in which couples kept daily reports of their conflicts, actually found that the number one topic of conflict was children. Next were chores, communication and leisure. Money came in fifth and sixth on the list. In another study, more marital conflict about money was predictive of lower marital quality, but not of divorce.
Interestingly, although money as a topic of conflict was lower on the list for both husbands and wives, it was associated with higher levels of negative emotions and lower levels of resolution. When couples did argue about money, they reported experiencing more sadness and fear and more expressions of anger and hostility than with other issues.
In other words, couples didn’t necessarily fight about money the most, but when they did argue about it, they argued hard without solving the problem.
Money does come up in therapy somewhat regularly as a conflict area in marriage. These are some common ways money becomes problematic:
- Financial dishonesty. Common examples are when a spouse finds out another one charged up debt on a hidden credit card or when one spouse spends retirement money without telling the other. Purchasing items and hiding them from a partner also happens relatively frequently.
- Lack of planning. Couples either don’t know how or are too uncomfortable to experience the emotions necessary to have financial conversations, so they turn a blind eye and end up avoiding money.
- Disagreement about purchases. It’s common to see couples who fundamentally disagree about how money should be spent. A common narrative is a husband who wants to make large purchases, e.g. automobiles or electronics vs. a wife who spends more on household items than the husband thinks is necessary.
While it is true that a certain level of income is required for security, research shows that money and happiness has more to do with relativism than absolutism. In other words, once you reach a certain income level, an increase in income won’t necessarily make you happier. If you feel well off compared to those around you, you will experience more well-being related to money, but if you feel deprived compared to those around you, you will experience more unhappiness.
I have had people from many different economic backgrounds in therapy, from couples at the poverty level to couples who could purchase my net worth several times over, and I can attest to the fact that money doesn’t protect people from marital problems. In fact, sometimes more money means more baseline expectations as well as more disagreement about how to distribute resources.
Money also doesn’t usually fix communication problems, in-law problems, parenting problems, sexual problems, betrayal, abuse, addictions or other common challenges. I have noticed that sometimes money is used as a band-aid for some of those problems, but the fix is temporary. Money can only mask other areas of discontent for so long.
It is for that reason that I believe money is often not the biggest problem when it comes to money in marriage. In my observation, the biggest problem is a lack of respect, teamwork and unity.
My husband built a career from a computer science background, which seemed like a solid choice at the time, but came with some unpredictable ups and downs associated with economic globalization. During one of the down turns, when a company for which he worked went out of business, I started to mildly panic about our future income.
As I thought about it, I recalled the early days of our marriage. Even though that time of our life had been far more financially restrictive than our current situation, I realized that I was no happier in the present with more financial resources than I had been in the past living in a mortuary. I remembered how we had bonded around maximizing our scarce resources. Because we were working together on common future goals, we tolerated our economic scarcity with a fair level of contentment. I realized I could access the same attitude I had used back then in the present to deal with the economic setback.
While financial catastrophes can create conflict-inducing stress in a marriage, there are couples who experience severe financial strain without allowing it to impact their marital quality.
I had a neighbor whose husband had been unemployed for several years. His area of expertise had become less marketable. I noticed that his wife never spoke disparagingly about him. She held his hand when they were out. She was tired and stressed, and felt the burden of raising her children while getting a job herself, but she was focused on helping him integrate back into the workforce until he got a job in another state. Instead of blaming or criticizing him, she was focused on solving the problem with him. I marveled at her attitude when I had witnessed so much of the opposite as a marriage therapist.
For what it’s worth, as a marriage therapist and not as a financial expert, here are some tips for unifying around finances:
- Do not keep financial secrets. It will only erode trust. This happens a lot. I was always surprised at how many women I knew hid their purchases from their husbands.
- Try to honor each other’s’ dreams. This is where the Golden Rule might be effectively applied.
- Get help from an expert if needed. If you can’t afford it, some universities or local organizations might offer financial planning or tax planning help. Ask.
- Create financial goals in the near and far future. If you need to, create a Venn diagram in which you write each of your desires and identify the overlap in the middle where you both agree.
- In times of financial distress, remember that it’s the marriage against the problem. Don’t allow the problem to divide the marriage. Have an “us against the dragon,” attitude.
- Realize that to have financial conversations, you are probably going to have to be willing to tolerate some uncomfortable emotions. Financial worries can trigger anxiety around future security, self-esteem and marital power and worth. Anchor yourselves to the idea that you are a team planning for the future.
Perhaps nothing has been pontificated about more than the topic of love and money. Despite my general dislike for the country music genre (just an individual preference—don’t take it personally—my daughter-in-law loves country music and I adore her), I was drawn to a Garth Brooks quote that declared, “You aren’t wealthy until you have something money can’t buy.” As a marriage therapist, I enthusiastically agree with that–as well as the Beatles lyrics that “Money can’t buy me love.” Really, it can’t.
For Richer, for Poorer: Money as a Topic of Marital Conflict in the Home by Papp, L. M., Cummings, E. M., & Goeke-Morey, M. C. (2009), Family Relations, 58, 91-103.
The Role of Money Arguments in Marriage by Britt, S. L. & Huston, S. J. (2012), Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 33(4), 464-476.
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