How to Stop Arguing about Money and Improve Your Relationship

Financial problems in marriage have both a financial aspect and a relationship aspect. Learn to deal with both and you can talk about anything.

Considering your spouse’s emotions is just as important as logic in talking about money (or anything)

The answer to financial problems is often simple, but talking to your spouse about it may be difficult. First, let’s consider the simple answer to financial problems–increase income and decrease expenses until you have a balanced budget.

On your own, that would be easier to do than together with your spouse. On your own, you alone could decide on purchases and savings. No one would give you grief about your choices. You would be responsible for your own income. And, there would be no opportunity for resentment to build.

This would be just as easy in your relationship IF you and your spouse were on exactly the same page. That’s not true if you and your spouse have different values regarding how to use money. The bigger your differences, the more distant your relationship will become. These differences will be most obvious and most damaging during times of financial hardship. But, it doesn’t have to be that way.

“My spouse has terrible ideas about using our money. How should I react?”

Immediately opposing your husband or wife may help to curb expenses, but at a cost to your relationship. You can handle your spouse’s ideas in a way that protects the finances while preserving your marriage. Most people try to jump directly into a logical discussion about finances. That can very easily make a spouse defensive and short circuit the discussion.

In order to discuss financial problems, it is much easier and more effective to use a two step approach. It might seem longer to do things this way, but because it resolves problems it is actually much faster.

Connection first, Not logic first

What your spouse is saying may indeed be terrible, stupid, harmful, etc., but forcefully pointing that out won’t help. That would just cause fighting, distancing, and disconnection.

Spouse 1: “I think we should withdraw some of our retirement money and take a trip around the world.”

Spouse 2: “What! Are you nuts! Then what are we supposed to do when we retire, eat our souvenirs and live off of our memories?!”

Spouse 2 may be entirely correct, but a directly oppositional approach just causes conflict and solves nothing.

“How can I make a connection when my spouse is saying such things?”

Everything has both good and bad aspects.  By agreeing with those aspects that are true, you can make a connection with your spouse by providing validation. In turn, this will help him or her to also consider your truths.  A shift is required from initially reasoning to initially listening and agreeing.

Spouse 1: “I think we should withdraw some of our retirement money and take a trip around the world.”

Spouse 2: “Hmm. A world trip. What made you think of that?”

Spouse 1: “I’m bored. We don’t do anything together anymore.”

Spouse 2:  “A world trip sure would liven things up.  And, it might be a lot of fun.”

“Isn’t agreeing with a harmful idea harmful?”

The agreement isn’t actually with the harmful aspects of the idea. In the above example, you are not agreeing to do anything. And talking about an idea is not the same as putting it into action. Counselors have been using this method for decades to connect with their clients before persuading them to take healthier actions. Instead of getting freaked out when the client comes up with a terrible idea, the counselor asks how it would help and then agrees with those things.

As a result, clients feel listened to and understood. Then, they are more open to hearing what the therapist has to say about it. If the therapist simply said, “That’s crazy!” the client would walk out the door and never come back. Therapists know that to really help clients make good decisions, they need to maintain a good relationship with them. That is true in your marriage as well. Only after agreement and connection comes problem solving.

Problem solving example dialogue

The essence of problem solving is coming to a decision together rather than one person being autocratic about it. Autocratic behavior in a marriage is destructive. Instead of being autocratic, simply let the information guide both of you (even though you may already know what the end result will be):

Spouse 1: “So, how much money shall we withdraw for our world trip?”

Spouse 2: “Let’s take a look at the information so we can make a good decision about it.”

(The couple sit down and look at all the facts including the cost of a world trip and how much it would impact their savings, the tax penalties, etc.)

Spouse 1: “Maybe a world trip isn’t such a good idea.”

Spouse 2: “I think you’re right. But, we can still think up some other ways to have fun.”

Although it takes a little more time to make financial decisions this way, it keeps you and your spouse connected through the entire process.

“We made a budget, but my spouse won’t follow it.”

This is another variation of a spouse’s failure to follow through with any plan that you make together When I help clients learn how to make plans with their spouse, I always introduce the idea of making a backup plan. Having a backup plan encourages people to stick with the first plan, and also gives them recourse if the first plan is not working. If your backup plan is to put a freeze on all discretionary spending if the budget is not working, your spouse may be more inclined to follow the budget.

“What are some other examples of backup plans for financial problems in marriage?”

Your backup plan could be any of a number of different possibilities including having a third party manage the bills and give you both allowances, attending a support group for over spenders, getting financial coaching, attending marital counseling, or even having a marital separation if the situation was severe enough. These ideas would likely be less desirable to your spouse and would help him or her to follow plan A. And, having a plan A and B can go a long way to prevent you from feeling stuck.

“We didn’t make a backup plan, and now we are in a mess financially. What can we do?”

Since you did not have a backup plan, at this point, you can try to restart the problem solving and make new plans—including a backup plan. Be sure not to be critical of your spouse’s failure to follow through on the last plan. If you do, then he or she is unlikely to do any problem solving with you. If your spouse refuses to do problem solving with you, the the main problem has become one of communication and relationship. The financial problem is only a symptom of that and may also be an early warning sign for your spouse divorcing you. Work on the relationship first, financial problems second.

“My spouse refuses to follow through on any plan. Am I stuck?”

If you have done all you can to build your connection with your spouse, and to work on your financial problems cooperatively, then you may feel stuck. Getting unstuck will mean either getting help with building a better connection with your spouse, or creating some plans that do not depend on your spouse’s cooperation. Such plans are called boundaries and are completely under your control. In my book, What to Do When He Won’t Change, I lay out a three step approach for women with uncooperative or selfish husbands geared toward improving their relationships. This happens mainly with a combination of good connection plus good boundaries. Either one alone will not create change.

“How can relationship coaching help with a financial problem?”

If your relationship is otherwise good, and your problem is limited to finances, then getting financial counseling makes more sense than relationship coaching. However many people with financial problems have many conflicts and difficulty communicating. Because of this, it’s hard to cooperate on their finances, even after they get financial consulting. Without some repair and strengthening of the relationship, the relationship may continue to fail. Financial problems in marriage often contribute to separation and divorce, but the inability to work together on the financial problems is more likely to be the deciding factor in what happens to the relationship.

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