Are Money Problems Really Your Problems?
The conflict itself can’t be the problem if we never engaged in conflict in the first place. Avoiding conflict is doing the damage, particularly when it comes to money problems. Why are we doing it, and how do we stop? How do we enter into healthy conflict resolution and realize that it serves our relationships when we step into it regularly?
So often, couples will feel the tension that something is not working but are unwilling to address it because it seems painful or intimidating. I had a couple tell me that every time they talk about money, it ends in tears. Money is an incredibly powerful instigator of conflict, cited in most marriage research as the #1 reason couples get divorced. My take is that those separations had more to do with an inability to handle conflict around money than money itself. Money itself is neutral, but it is so interwoven in how we recognize and feel security and how we enjoy ourselves or engage with each other in a shared experience. It is so deeply attached to the Marriage Experience. You’re making decisions sometimes on your own, sometimes together, and those decisions can create friction. There’s fear that maybe someone is overspending, maybe we’re not saving enough, are we missing out on the life we want to lead because we’re over-saving? And not only is this damaging the relationship, but it’s also reaching into the future and placing explosives in the ground you have yet to walk on; it becomes impossible to avoid, and the consequences are much greater.
That fear of conflict and unwillingness to engage causes us to suppress and ignore, assuming or hoping that it will go away on its own – but we’re just building to a larger conflict. When it comes to money problems, it’s also compounding whatever your original problem might be. Let’s say you aren’t saving enough, and you’re not taking the responsibility of having the conversation you need to have. Time is still passing, and your opportunities to catch up on savings are going past you, and you’re just letting them go. Not only does this conflict avoidance create deep resentment with your spouse, but you are blocking yourself from moving forward. I see clients get to this place where their fear of money causes them to avoid their money altogether. They stop looking at what they have, stop tracking things, and overall ignore it because they feel intense resentment or fear when it’s brought up.
Say we have a client who thinks they should be saving more. Their spouse is making spending decisions, and they are not having conversations around those spending decisions. The fearful one starts to resent their partner for the fear they are having around finances. Yet, because they are not having that conversation, the spouse continues to spend, and the fearful spouse still is not saving enough. Eventually, they wake up one day and realize they have accumulated debt or have deeply under-saved. That resentment is bigger now because the problems have deep, not-so-easily-resolved consequences. If there is anything you need to motivate you, let it be the fact that as time passes, the issues get harder and harder to fix.
It’s not the money problems that are causing these issues. It’s the avoidance of the conversation around money and the tension that builds. As a couple, when you see these big problems, you turn to the person next to you, and you place all that uncomfortable blame that you don’t want to carry onto them. It feels unsurmountable and unresolvable, and in any relationship, that’s a frightening place to be. You have no right to resent your spouse for doing something that you have never told them they need to stop doing and the consequences if they don’t. You have no ground to stand on to resent them when they don’t even have the perspective of what their spending is doing.
To have conflict resolution, the first thing you have to recognize is that you don’t have a choice – you have to take that step. It is the only way to salvage what has been burning. Secondly, the fear that you’re feeling, that dissatisfaction or whatever is causing the resentment or conflict to fester, is not your partner’s fault.
One of the reasons this conflict is so deeply rooted in fear is that we often start from a place of accusation, blame, and shame to the other person; and many times, we do this without the perspective of the reality of the financial situation.
First things first – own your feelings. Use “I” statements so you can own all that is coming from you without projecting onto your spouse. Do not ever put the ownership of your discontent or your fear on someone else. That is the quickest way to an unraveling trainwreck of conflict because that other person doesn’t want to own that. And why should they? It’s not theirs to own.
The second piece of reaching conflict resolution is if you are the one in the listening role, extend as much grace and patience as you can muster. They might let out a lot all at once, and it may be overwhelming on your end; however, once they’re done, if you can give them a reflection back of what you heard, that is the best de-escalation device you could use.
It could look something like this…
Partner A: I feel like we’re spending too frivolously and I know you work hard for your money and I’m not trying to say we can’t spend on things we want, but I’m afraid that we’re not being careful enough and I want our kids to have college savings, and we don’t have a plan for anything.
Partner B: What I’m hearing from you is that you are afraid we are not intentional enough with our spending or our saving goals, and would like to dedicate time to devise a concrete plan. Is that right?
As the listener, your goal is to step in, hear what is being said, and reflect back to them. When they see that you were listening and that you are putting in the effort to engage, it takes away their desire to be on the defensive.
If you have been avoiding conflict around money, please reach out to us. We would love to support you in starting that conversation.