Money & Marriage

Few issues create as much distress within a marriage as money. That is because it often isn’t about money itself, and so the stew continues churning because the real issues are never addressed: It is really about power (power to control one’s life, power to make decisions, power to avoid deprivation, power to meet one’s needs, power in relation to one’s partner, power to establish status) and freedom (freedom from want, from control, from subservience, for expression, for need-meeting, to soothe oneself or establish one’s image). If a couple truly feels a sense of mutuality regarding their finances (including earnings, division of labor, standard of living, financial obligations, debts brought into the relationship, etc.), money is less likely to become an issue, less likely to be used as a wedge to divide them. It is when differentials of power and freedom creep —or blast — their way into a couple’s relationship that there is “trouble in River City”! Sometimes these shifts may seem subtle; other times they have the shocking force of a tornado.

Unnegotiated or Inadequately Negotiated Changes

I would like to invite you to consider those moments when you and your spouse may have been challenged by a financial situation. Perhaps when you met, both of you were working and earning approximately the same amount of money. Then you decided to have a baby, or one of you wanted to go back to school. Now, this once equitable situation has been disrupted. Perhaps when you met you both struck a deal: One would work and the other would manage home life. It felt like a perfect bargain: One of you could not imagine being at home all day— work would be a pleasure in comparison— while the other may have dreamed of being a homemaker. In each scenario both of you felt as if an equitable deal was struck.

Then, life happened. The balance was upended, perhaps with very little negotiation or exploration regarding the internal and interpersonal impact of these changes. Regardless of whether it was sudden or gradual, one (or maybe both) of you began to feel the inequity in the new arrangement. Or maybe one of you changed and the initial deal no longer works. The workplace no longer feels adventurous, but rather hostile and uncertain; boredom creeps in while managing the home. You may begin to feel taken advantage of by your spouse whom you are certain has it much easier than you do. Before long, discontentment evolves into resentment, disagreements into fights.

Financial Distress

When life unfolds, each of us is a pioneer. No matter how many have gone before us, we cannot know what it will be like for us to walk that path until we do it ourselves. We cannot know today how we will feel ten years into our career. We cannot know ahead of time how we will feel ten years into the process of parenting. We cannot anticipate the toll of life’s demands on us until those tolls have actually been taken. This is especially true when financial disaster strikes. If it is difficult to project into the future how we may feel if our life trend continues as anticipated, it is impossible to imagine the disruptive effects of life gone awry. How will we react if we lose our job? What will we do? How will we feel? How can such a loss be processed? Or, what will happen if we face outrageous medical bills or attorney’s fees? If we are victims of identity theft or scams? If we lose houses or cars? Who can honestly know how he or she will survive such distress?

If we cannot anticipate how life may impact us, neither can we estimate clearly what such financial disasters will do to our spouses. When we find ourselves in the midst of these deserts or jungles of life’s journey, the first thought that crosses our minds is rarely, “I wonder what my spouse is going through right now.” This unexpected blast of life’s changes may insulate us in such a self-protective way that we have little, if any, room to imagine the inner domain of our partner. We may be so awash with shame after losing our job that we have absolutely no room for how insecure and uncertain — and suddenly very responsible for the household finances — our spouse may feel.

Today, nearly one in five Americans is either unemployed or underemployed. Short sales, foreclosures, and bankruptcies are incredibly common. Nearly one half of the houses in our nation are “under water.” Financial distress is not a rarity anymore: If we have not experienced it, a relative, friend, or neighbor surely has. No one is immune (I wish we could develop a vaccine!). When a marriage has to endure financial disaster, it often crumbles under the weight of blame, resentment, and fear.

Protecting Our Marital Union from the Ravages of Financial Unknowns

Living here in Florida, we know that we cannot stop hurricanes from hitting us, but we can take measures to protect ourselves and our properties when a tropical system threatens us. Likewise, we can take preventive measures to help our marriages survive the financial storms of life. Here are a few suggestions:

First, explore the meaning of money for you, beginning with how you experienced it in childhood. I hear so many couples tell me that one of them is the “spender” and the other is the “saver.” I wonder (as most shrinks probably do) what factors push one to gratify and the other to withhold gratification. What does spending and saving mean to you? It is not uncommon to find individuals raised in near poverty conditions to have opposite reactions; some will feel a pressure to spend, to ward off that old sense of deprivation, and others will feel a need to save, to hold onto all they can in order to avoid the conditions of deprivation. Don’t let psychologists have all the fun. Begin this journey inward to explore what work, earning, spending, saving, and giving may mean to you, and why.

Let your intimacy include your financial story. Often it is much easier for a couple to be physically undressed in front of each other than it is for them to be emotionally undressed in this way. Nurturing these vulnerabilities in our partners is part of love. “I know that you were very frightened when your dad lost his job and your mom had to work two jobs. The very thought that this could happen to you is overwhelming!” “I didn’t realize that you always felt like you never deserved anything nice, that they were simply luxuries in a needy world. It makes sense that you feel such a need to be frugal.” I hope you get the idea.

As a couple facing financial crisis, seek support and help. I realize that asking for help is difficult, but regarding this issue there’s almost no such thing as too much help. I am referring, of course, to the type of help designed to empower, not disempower. If the crisis is protracted, a sense of helplessness can become reinforced. You may benefit from a financial advisor, a credit counselor, an attorney, marriage counselor, spiritual counselor, an employment counselor, or groups of people currently experiencing similar events (which have the wonderful benefit of dissipating shame and providing you with community).

I would like to say a word about therapy during this time. You may find during such periods of loss and disorientation that being engaged in therapy will provide you with the type of support you may have long required. During those sessions, you will be able to explore how you are moving through this crisis. Perhaps even more importantly, this is the time when you and your spouse may begin to explore the various textured meanings money has held for each of you (and perhaps how those perspectives clash). The temptation during these financially difficult seasons may be to discontinue therapy; after all, it is just another expense, right? Often, however, this proves to be costlier in the long run, particularly if the stressors between husband and wife remain unaddressed. Almost always therapy is considerably less expensive than separation or divorce. I urge you to try to imagine therapy not as “a cost” but rather “an investment” in the quality of your life both now and in the future. Whatever your choices during these moments, please do not go it alone.

Try to dream again. As a Christian, I find the death, burial, and resurrection theme at play in so much of our lives. Certainly, we must grieve first in order to embrace anew. Death precedes resurrection! It is also in the nature of death and grieving that one is unable to imagine life anew; it is as if we are in a tomb of sorts for a season. Don’t give up on life. Though it may seem a galaxy away, hold onto hope. Your spouse may spot it first! You may be tempted to ridicule such naiveté, but if you possibly can, cherish those first tender shoots of a new life.