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Couples—Stop Fighting Over Money!

Marriages break up more over money conflicts than anything else.

No question about it. Fighting about money is hazardous to your relationship. One recent study (by Jeffrey Dew at Utah State University) found that the more frequently couples argued over finances, the more likely they were to get divorced—especially if their altercations occurred several times a week, or almost every day. Obviously, couples fight about many things—from child rearing, to sex, to household chores, to dealing with in-laws. But, above everything else, frequency of money disputes remains the single best predictor of divorce.

It’s also an area of contention where attitudes of prideful self-righteousness are most likely to prevail. When couples argue about money, their respective positions so deeply reflect core values that it’s hard for them not to get into antagonistic gridlock on the subject. And like a festering disease, as time passes such polarization tends not to get better but worse—ultimately threatening the very foundation of their relationship. The inability to appreciate and sympathetically discuss their conflicting attitudes toward money eventuates in all kinds of misunderstandings and hurt feelings, which in turn leads to an increasing sense of alienation and loss of intimacy.

Although typically many variations are in play, there are two essential positions that people take toward money. And, regrettably, these differing viewpoints or perspectives aren’t really reconcilable. Which is the reason that it’s crucial couples learn how to amicably agree to disagree on the matter—to develop a mutual recognition and respect for the other’s dissimilar “money personality.” That way their endless and futile fights over money can cease for good (and for the good of the relationship). Here are the two eternally contrasting monetary philosophies—and the labels that best portray them:

1. The Spender (seen unfavorably by their contrary partner as a “spendthrift.” “squanderer,” or “compulsive shopper”). Money is an invaluable commodity. It can be used in a multitude of ways to increase personal welfare, satisfaction, pleasure, excitement, joy, contentment, and so on. Exchanged for the right goods and services—and/or given as gifts—it contributes to one’s security, independence, happiness and well-being. Moreover, it’s a great advantage to have enough money (or credit) such that one doesn’t have to be preoccupied with how much something costs. One can simply buy whatever one most desires, and so derive maximum gratification from it. In short, the value of money emanates precisely from its “spendability.”

2. The Saver (seen unfavorably by their contrary partner as a “cheapskate,” “tightwad,” “hoarder,” or even “miser”). Money is an invaluable commodity. In fact, It’s so valuable that it ought to be cherished, held in the highest esteem—and coveted. For if it’s scrupulously safeguarded, it offers a person a most gratifying sense of accomplishment, stability, power and control. It’s actually best not to spend money at all but to conscientiously invest it—to protect it (or “grow” it) all the more. And because money is so precious, when it’s spent it ought to be done with utmost circumspection. So gratuitous, frivolous, lavish or extravagant purchases cannot be justified—and ought to be rigorously avoided. Additionally, wasteful, self-indulgent expenditures should be kept under strict control. Rather, money needs to be handled “wisely” (i.e., with great discretion and restraint). Moreover, having or achieving considerable wealth hardly constitutes sufficient reason to be profligate about one’s finances. For regardless of material circumstances, money is something to hang on to. In sum (no pun intended), the value of money lies not in spending it, but saving it.

It should be obvious that at the root of most couples’ arguments about money lies in this fundamental opposition. And such an “irreconcilable difference” between their discrepant belief systems on the commodity can easily fuel relational conflict independent of the couples’ actual financial resources—though if their funds are seriously deficient, the conflict will doubtless be all the more inflammatory.

Many therapists have stressed the importance of couples’ explicitly—and empathically—discussing their money differences if they’re to alleviate abiding financial tensions between them. And to ensure that such communication is productive, I’d strongly suggest they both reflect upon the above spender/saver dichotomy. Even beyond this exploration, however, it’s imperative that—in advance!—they painstakingly evaluate all the things that, personally, money means to them. For virtually all professionals who’ve written about this knotty subject agree that fights about money aren’t, finally, about this medium of exchange at all. Instead, they’re about what money signifies. And what it represents for one person can diverge markedly from what it symbolizes for the other.

Giving yourself permission to be as objective, and as truthful, with yourself as possible, consider whether—and how—your basic attitude toward money relates to:

  • love, caring, and affection (and note that like many other items on this checklist, these attributes might be expressed—depending on your particular perspective—either through spending money or saving it);
  • a sense of safety, security, and stability;
  • feelings of competence;
  • power and control;
  • self-esteem (i.e., feeling that you’re worth spending money on—or having money spent on);
  • being acceptable;
  • status and making a positive impression on others;
  • being materially rewarded for your efforts and achievements;
  • success (and if so, are finances something you use to “keep score” with?);
  • relief from stress—and distress;
  • warranted self-indulgence;
  • gaining others’ respect—and maybe improving your self-respect as well;
  • a sense of personal responsibility;
  • sexual opportunity—and possibly also sexual dominance;
  • freedom and independence;
  • companionship and warmth;
  • a sense of contentment;
  • feeling empowered or enriched (by your, er-, riches);
  • filling a void or deprivation in your life—whether social, psychological, or spiritual (and this aspect of money would be largely unconscious); and
  • achieving happiness and a state of well-being.

In discussing money issues with your partner, it’s critical that you keep an open mind. Remember, this isn’t about winning a mortal battle, or endlessly debating whose “talking points” are superior. No, it’s about recognizing that your partner’s outlook on money (unless, that is, it’s flagrantly illogical or self-contradictory) may have just as much validity as your own. And, additionally, may be held with just as much pride, conviction, and commitment. Consider also that the two of you may possess different inborn tendencies, temperaments, and experiential histories—and in growing up have received from your caretakers extremely disparate messages about money. Viewing your marital money problems in such a greatly expanded light may well help you realize that what earlier struck you as simply wrong-headed about your spouse now makes a lot more sense, is more warranted and legitimate.

Lastly, it cannot be overemphasized that you—and your mate, too—have to be willing to adopt a positive mindset, searching for common ground and areas of mutually acceptable compromise. For both of your belief systems—and emotions—about money must be taken into account if you’re to successfully negotiate your monetary conflicts and finally resolve them.

It’s hardly realistic to expect that either of you can transform your well-entrenched, firmly held values about money. But it’s certainly reasonable to think that with increased understanding, compassion, acceptance, and respect toward each other’s perspective, you’ll be able to put an end to what may long have been a relational thorn in both your sides.

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© 2012 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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