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Is the Number One Relationship Killer Threatening You?

Studies show that it's not sex, or infidelity. It's something much more common.


Research shows that it’s mainly how couples fight, not what they fight about it, that best predicts the ultimate success or failure of the relationship or marriage.

But arguing about money appears to be the exception.

Studies consistently show that conflict about financial issues is, as Jeffrey R. Dew and Robert Stewart note, “stronger, longer lasting, and predicts divorce better than other types of marital conflict.”

As a child, I assumed that all married people—that is, parents—fought about money. Mine did, all the time, both in and out of earshot. The long and short of it was pretty simple: My mother thought my father didn’t make enough of it, and my father thought she spent too much of it.

The role money plays in a marriage is both literal—determining how well the family lives and how often or infrequently they have to worry about making ends meet or deny themselves things they deem necessary—and symbolic. On the symbolic side, there’s who makes the money or most of it, how much power that gives him or her, and whether the main wage earner uses that power. Additionally, when one person makes all the money or the lion’s share, that earner may feel resentful, put upon, or chafe at the “unfairness” of the situation.

One man, whose marriage of 20-plus years ended in divorce, and who was the sole wage earner, commented that he “felt like a workhorse for everyone else’s needs.” He noted that when it came to spending, his needs came last, after his wife’s and children’s.

Similarly, a woman who earns all the money and is in what she considers a very good marriage, allowed as how 100 percent of the couple’s fights were about money and that she felt resentful that she was the rainmaker: “It remains, even after all this time, a bone of contention."

Money is used symbolically to mollify people and to control them; it can function as a substitute for love, and spending can be a stand-in for other unfulfilled needs. There are "checkbook" husbands and fathers, wives and mothers.

Money is both public and secret at once. How much or little money we have determines where and how we live, and shapes the social circles we travel in. How we spend money and whether we care about it and value it are part of our public persona. Most of us are brought up to keep the financial details of our lives private; even those who flaunt the trappings of wealth keep the true details under wraps. From the outside, you can’t tell if that mansion is paid for or heavily mortgaged, or if that spiffy car is owned or leased.

In truth, in a culture which believes in romantic love, few couples embarking on marriage actually explore their attitudes toward money, saving, spending, debt, or investment. It appears most people feel that talking about dollars and cents seems crass or unsexy when you’re pledging your undying love, even though that omission may provide the fuel for the undoing of your connection to each other.

One thirty-something woman who just ended her marriage of three years remarked ruefully that not talking about finances beforehand was the single biggest mistake she’d made:

“In hindsight, we absolutely should have discussed our attitudes toward spending but, even more, toward paying bills and accruing debt. I know now that my ex is always in arrears, always in debt, always short of his obligation, and it made me nuts. And I didn’t want to play the taskmaster or Mommy—garnishing his paycheck and doling out an allowance but that’s the only way it would have worked.”

Another woman, now celebrating 35 years together, said:

“If we’d talked about money at the beginning, we would have saved ourselves a lot of trouble and turmoil. We bullied our way through it but our attitudes toward money couldn’t be more different. We’re the ant and the grasshopper from the fable come to life.”

Other couples cobble together solutions to keep the din down and the fighting to a minimum—separate checking and saving accounts, appointing a single bill payer, and agreeing to joint discussions of purchases over a certain dollar amount. These “solutions” sometimes work, and sometimes don’t.

The complex role finances play in marriage led researchers Jeffrey P. Dew and Robert Stewart to examine whether financial conflict was really about dollars and cents, or a relationship issue under another guise. They examined the extent to which conflicts about finances were driven by economic pressures; measures of communication, respect or fairness; or affected by commitment to the marriage and spouse. Their results amply demonstrated precisely how complicated these arguments are, and how they are not always what they seem.

Not surprisingly, economic pressure predicted conflict for both husbands and wives, but consumer debt was a lightning rod for husbands, not wives. This is interesting since, in the sample, husbands earned 76% of the income; was it the increased pressure to earn to repay debt they responded to? Or were they reacting to spouses’ over-spending? On the positive side, the more committed wives and husbands were to their spouses, the less likely they were to fight about money. That opens the door to wondering whether people fight about money as a way avoiding bigger issues like lack of commitment. Similarly, the more respected by a partner a spouse felt, the less conflict about finances. This held true as well for those who felt the dynamics of the relationship were fair.

In their conclusion, the researchers wrote:

“Thus, financial conflicts may serve as proxies for hidden relationship problems. Some couples may simply not be consciously aware of the issues that underlie their financial conflicts. Alternatively, fighting about finances may be easier, more socially acceptable, or safer for a relationship than fighting about deeply rooted relationship issues.”

The take-away? If you are fighting about money, you should ask yourself:

  • Is the issue really about money—financial pressures, spending beyond your means—or something else?
  • Are you reacting to the symbolic aspects of your spouse’s financial behaviors—inferring a lack of commitment or respect or fairness? If so, are you addressing those underlying concerns?
  • If you are really fighting about money and spending, stay on topic and remember that communicating both your sense of commitment and willingness to resolve things cooperatively will go a long way.

Another study by Dew, Sonya Britt, and Sandra Huston yielded even more insight into the dynamic of conflicts fueled by finances. These disagreements were the only type of conflict reported to predict divorce by husbands; wives concurred, but added sex as well. Even more interesting, when the researchers controlled for economic pressures, they found that regardless of financial capabilities, this conflict remained a high predictor of divorce at all the levels of the socioeconomic continuum. That’s pretty astonishing and suggests that how little or how much money the couple has may not matter nearly as much as the conflict itself. Their findings also suggest that the really destructive communicative patterns in conflicts—what John Gottman has called “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”—are specifically linked to financial disagreements. These patterns include criticism (attributing personal characteristics to the problem, not a person’s actions); contempt (criticizing in an insulting and abusive manner); defensiveness (denying responsibility, making excuses, hurling criticism back at the speaker); and stonewalling (demand/withdrawal pattern).

So, if you’re fighting about money, the chances are very good that the right answer isn’t “It’s only money, after all.” Recognize financial conflict as the heavy-duty symbolic dynamite it is, as well as its destructive potential. Pay attention and deal with it consciously and constructively if you want your relationship to thrive and survive. If you don’t, do nothing—this kind of fighting will do the heavy lifting for you.

  • Dew, Jeffrey P. and Robert Stewart, “A Financial Issue, A Relationship Issue, or Both? Examining the Predictors of Marital Financial Conflict,” Journal of Financial Therapy (2012), vol. 3, issue 1, 43-61.
  • Dew, Jeffrey, Sonja Britt, and Sandra Huston,” Examining the Relationship Between Financial Issues and Divorce,” Family Relations (October 2012), 61, 615-628.
  • Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. New York: Fireside 1994.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2015

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