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Fighting About Money? Beware!

Arguing about money augurs ill for the survival of relationships.

fighting about money

If you think couples fight a lot about sex, take a look at the stats for fights about money. Research by Dr. Terri Orbuch, a research psychologist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research found that money is the number one cause of conflict in the majority of marriages, good or bad.

Given the frequency of money fights, it’s no wonder that a recent study of engaged couples found that more than two-thirds of the couples expressed negative attitudes about discussing money. While confidence about being about to talk productively about this sensitive subject was low and their dread was high, almost half said that they would want to face this awkward subject nonetheless. At the same time, 8%, which is about 1 out of every 12 couples in the study, feared that if they tried to talk about their financial realities, they would end up breaking off the engagement.

At the same time, money issues impact both spouses. Marriage entails, for most people, pooling resources and sharing a financial future. Once these couples have married they will face finances as co-owners of shared financial accounts, making it almost inevitable that they will have to be able to discuss how they will handle their finances. That’s why the upshot of this study, run by the NFCC (National Foundation for Credit Counseling) is that the NFCC now advises all engaged couples to “talk before you walk.”

What aspects of financial management do couples argue about?

A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll asked that question. They received a surprisingly clear answer: spending too much and saving too little.

The research by Dr. Terri Orbuch (mentioned above) augmented this list of money hot topics. His study found that different spending styles, lies about spending, and one person, often the one who was making more money, trying to control the other also ignited sparks and inflamed tempers.

Are money spats harmless?

To the contrary, if you don't want to end up divorced, pay heed. If you want to stay married, beware. A National Survey of Families and Households study conducted some years ago by Jeffrey Dew at Utah State University found that the more disagreement about finances, the higher the likelihood amongst the 2,800 couples in the study that the couple would end up divorced.

Sure, money fights may increase the chance of divorce, but how bad do the odds really get that the marriage won’t last if there’s too many money fights? In Dew’s study, couples who disagreed about money issues at least once a week had a 30% higher change of getting divorced than couples for whom financial issues are less often a source of disagreement.

Here’s another way to understand the lethality of money fights for a marriage.

One study found that for wives, two factors are amongst the best predictors of divorce: fights over finances and fights about sex.

For men, financial differences were the only source of fights that proved statistically significant in predicting divorce. That is, sex may be a problem but men will put up with a lot of frustration and disappointment in that arena before they give up on a marriage. For many men however, money differences can become a do or die issue.

What can you do if you and your loved one have been fighting about money?

If you knew that you soon would have to ski down a steep and treacherous slope you would take skiing lessons lest you crack your head open or break a leg on the way down the slope. If you are going to get married, or if you see sensitive financial issues likely to arise on the road ahead, take lessons from a marriage counselor, take an online or in-person relationship communications skills course, or read up on how to discuss emotionally sensitive issues. Seeing a financial advisor who can help the two of you build a common understanding of the financial issues you need to face together can also help.

In addition, for help preventing money fights you might want to get hold of a deck of cards. Yes, cards, in the form of a Money Habitudes card deck. Money Habitudes cards offer a fun way to can help couples to build a foundation of mutual understanding, respect and even good humor vis a vis their differing money habits and attitudes. After playing with Money Habitudes cards, subsequent discussions about money issues are likely to feel less emotionally loaded. Instead of locking into an immediate tug of war couples are more likely to be able to launch with a sympathetic statement. “I do understand how frightened you feel when I go over budget one month, and at the same time here’s what happened ….”

Lastly, if fights are continuing, get a third party involved who can calm down the situation by adding a third perspective. A financial advisor can help you to develop shared understandings of your money realities. This site by Denver fiancial advisor Lauren Sigman explains what these fiancial professionals can do to help. Similarly, a therapist with good mediator skills can help the two of you talk more calmly and productively about the financial issues you face. Also, a therapist may help you each to understand the deeper, less conscious roots of some of your more agitating fears and concerns.

The bottom line

Fighting seldom leads to creative solutions on any issue, and especially not with regard to money. Learn instead to talk calmly with each other. Listen respectfully to each others concerns. Then dance your way to a shared financial vision with the Win-Win Waltz.


Susan Heitler, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Denver who specializes in helping couples build the skills for a strong and loving partnership, is author of the book, workbook and online program called Power of Two.

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