When I first got married, an experienced, twice-married colleague gave me some interesting nuptial advice. She claimed there are only two things married couples fight about. One is sex, and the other is money.
I had two thoughts about her comment at the time. The first was: “Wow, this is an awkward work conversation.” And the second thought was: “Well, we will never fight about money because I am clearly going to be in charge of it.” Yeah, right.
Over time, I discovered some truth in her comments. I mean, we’re all human, and we all fight from time to time. But was money really 50% of the reason behind this? Though there was undoubtedly a degree of truth in my colleague's statement, it wasn’t the whole story. In fact, the reasons we all fight with our partners are far more complex.
The Truth About Why Couples Fight
In my role as a financial advisor I help many smart and successful couples. Through this work I have been able to make some interesting observations, and a deeper truth has emerged. It is this: Couples do not actually fight about money. What? That is not true! (You are silently screaming in your head right now).
It is true. Money, sex, children, chores, alcohol, and relatives are the core “issues” couples fight about. But really there are only three themes partners go to war over; an assertion supported by the research of Howard Markman.
One theme is power and control. The other is trust and closeness. And the third theme is respect and recognition. We can examine “money issues” couples fight about through the lens of these themes, and see how they neatly map themselves along each of them.
Theme #1: Power and Control
The first theme is power and control. Who has the decision-making power. Whose priorities matter most? This dynamic deeply impacts the way a couple might talk about money.
In my own marriage, a constant battle has been: who is the breadwinner, and by extension, whose job is the priority today? For example, my husband and I may both have work events on the same evening, and a sick child, and then we fight over what event takes precedence.
I also see the power and control dynamic with clients when it comes to who controls the checkbook, who controls the household balance sheet and investments, or who controls both in the relationship (and maybe doesn’t want to). Does one partner have too much control, or not enough?
Theme #2: Trust and Closeness
Trust and closeness is the second theme. Do you have my back? Are we in this together? Can I trust you are spending money appropriately? Do you share it with me or hide it? Is it fair?
Maybe you are similar to my husband and love to spend money on deer hunting supplies. Or maybe you are like me and prefer to spend money on Lululemon and running gear. Do we support each other and back each other up in these decisions? Or do we make each other feel bad about it?
Does what we spend money on drive a wedge between us? Or bring us together? I do know when we choose to spend money on experiences that make us both happy (like a trip to Hawaii), it seems more like an investment in our marriage and not a “cost”.
Theme #3: Respect and Recognition
The last thing couples fight about is respect and recognition. Are my ideas and contributions valued? If I change jobs or change my career, or decide to stay home to be a caregiver, will you still respect me? Do you recognize the (non-monetary) ways I contribute?
This theme can be especially problematic for heterosexual couples when women have been shown to perform far more cognitive and emotional labour than men when it comes to household responsibilities. Of course this is not true of all couples, but if there is an additional hidden load being carried by the woman with the couple, additional stresses and resentments can build.
How to Manage Money as a Couple, Without a Fight
The next time you fight with your partner or your spouse, or even your parents, siblings or friends about money, pause and ask yourself: What theme is really at play here?
I don’t have all the answers to these hard questions, but I do have a process that can help you sort through how to best make an investment in your financial future together.
Seeking a professional to help you navigate through the complexity of balancing your love life with your financial life can be a useful asset that allows you to focus your time and effort on other things that are important to you as a couple.
If you would like to discuss these themes, and how to make sure money isn’t something you and your partner fight about in the future, I’d love to chat with you. Book a complimentary 30-minute discovery call today, and let’s get started.