How To Fight Fair In Couples’ Money Conflicts

Marriage is hard, and money makes it harder. Merging two lives, two beings who are always changing, is a delicate balance of individual autonomy and collective submission that requires perpetual calibration.

Into this fragile ecosystem, each partner brings their own financial history, and the balance sheet—what you own and what you owe—is just the beginning. Our individual life experiences with and around money have created a string of subconscious beliefs called “money scripts,” unspoken convictions that run in the background, guiding our behavior and silently judging the decisions of others.

Then, our penchant for our version of truth over everyone else’s—a.k.a. the “fundamental attribution error”—leads us to deify our financial decisions while demonizing our partner’s when in conflict. And because we are each different people with unique personalities and different life experiences, conflict is not the exception, but the rule.

That’s why professionals like Dr. Traci Williams, a clinical psychologist, assistant professor at the Emory University School of Medicine, and Certified Financial Therapist™, will enjoy gainful employment into perpetuity. I asked her how we can fight fair when facing inevitable financial friction.

Here are four rules of engagement for navigating financial conflict:

1. We > I. “Remember that your partner is your ally,” Dr. Williams told me. This is the person you chose to do life with, not your rival. While seemingly obvious, this dispositional foundation is too easily disrupted, especially when we enlist others outside our union to fortify our positions. So, before you even open your mouth, take a deep breath—or five—and remember that it’s better to be happy than (your version of) right.

2. Later > Now. The best time to introduce this topic of discussion is not when we are emotionally triggered. This is because when we are emotionally triggered, it overrides our rationale. Similarly, when our significant other is emotionally triggered, our attempts at crafting a rational argument are likely in vain. Therefore, our intentions to have a productive financial discussion have a higher probability of success when starting from neutral ground—later, after we’ve had a chance to process and synthesize, rather than in the heat of the moment. Even then, “Being human comes with emotion,” says Dr. Williams, so we must also be willing to take a break if when we find ourselves emotionally triggered amidst a planned discussion.

3. Stories > Facts. Have you ever taken a single financial fact representing a decision made by your spouse and crafted your own story to suit your point of view? I certainly have, and in so doing, I’ve gotten it backward. In actuality, “Every behavior around money, no matter how illogical it seems to you or others, makes perfect sense when we understand the underlying thoughts, feelings, or beliefs.” I learned this profound truth from Rick Kahler and Ted Klontz, a financial advisor and psychotherapist combo who have done much to advance our understanding of the intersection of money and relationships. Indeed, when we understand our partner’s Personal Money Story, it enables us to see them—and their behavior with money—as the product of their life experiences, not mere character flaws. Therefore, one of the best exercises we can undertake as couples is to tell our money stories.

Start by recalling your first money memory; rate it as a positive experience (between 1 and 10, 10 being the best) or negative experience (between -1 and -10). As subsequent financial memories that left a mark come to mind, rate them as well. Now, you have a coherent narrative of your financial experiences and a story you can share with your beloved. Yes, they’ll understand you better, but I can guarantee you’ll learn something about yourself through this exercise. Click HERE to access a Google
sheet that you can use to automatically plot your Personal Money Story on a graph. (You’ll open a view-only version; go to “File” and click “Make a Copy.”)

4. Prevention > Cure. Don’t wait until you’re ready to pull the ripcord on your marriage before you engage your spouse in a healthy financial discussion. Learning your partner’s money story and their financial facts are steps that are ideally taken before you even get married. Whether you join your finances together is up to you, but Dr. Williams implores us to be 100% transparent in our finances as couples. She further counsels that we check in on our budget and financial standing at least every two weeks—weekly is the ideal. This gives us time to course-correct in any given month.

Sometimes finances create conflicts in our marriages, while conflicts in our marriages often create financial challenges—and nothing is more expensive, personally or financially, than divorce. This prophetic warning is certainly motivation to be proactive in effective money management as couples, but the upside is even better. When we see financial friction as an opportunity to learn something new about our spouse, find common ground, and counter our individual weaknesses with our partner’s strengths, we can see how couples’ money management can be a bonding agent, rather than something that divides.

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