This post is the second in a series of guest posts that focus on getting the most from your money life when it intersects with your love life.
Reasons for couples seeking counseling varies. Some of the most common reasons for couples to seek out counseling includes difficulty communicating and lack of affection. In my experience as a marriage counselor and owner of The Marriage and Family Clinic in Denver, CO I see these as the top reasons couples seek out counseling, too. But while most couples who seek out counseling are experiencing difficulties communicating and a lack of affection, there is another common difficulty that couples are also experiencing that I see in my office regularly. In fact, it’s so common I don’t even assess for it. I just assume that there is difficulty surrounding it, too. That difficulty is about money.
When couples fight about money, though, it’s not usually about the money. Most people would agree that fighting about money is pretty shallow – especially in a relationship with someone you care about. So then why do couples fight about money if they all agree that fighting about money is pretty shallow?
Money is a Symptom of Problems in Marriage – Not The Cause
A lot of couples will fight about money. But it’s not really about the money. It’s about the meaning they have assigned to the money.
For example, one couple I saw for counseling would fight frequently about money. The wife was always going shopping with her mom or one of her 3 sisters on the weekend. The husband was mad because he would rather save that money and go travelling together to more exotic places. And she couldn’t see why her husband would be so controlling as to tell her what she should do with her own family. They even set a budget for her and he was still getting upset – even though she was usually within the budget for her shopping excursions.
Even though the couple was fighting about dollars and cents, they found out the money was simply a symptom of the bigger problems they were having. His issue was that he was feeling like the bottom man on the totem pole compared to her mother and sisters. And the wife was angry that her husband would be so controlling as to tell her what to do. Money was definitely the tangible evidence of the difficulty they were having but talking about money wasn’t going to – and didn’t – solve their problems.
As soon as they started talking about the deeper difficulties, the money problems suddenly disappeared. She started saving more for vacations for the two of them as a way to show her husband that he really was more important. And he wouldn’t get so angry about the times she would go out with her family – which were less now but they started having them over to their home more.
Money Has Meanings to Different People
I often get asked if there is one panacea for couples who are having money problems in their marriage – one single nugget that is at the root of all couples’ money problems. The truth is, the reason couples argue about money is about as various as the couples themselves. This is because each person has a different meaning they assign to money which is influenced by many things (the way you grew up, your own morals and values, they way you saw your parents spend money, etc).
In the example above, the husband thought money to signs of love and affection and the wife assigned money to freedom and not being controlled. Below are some other common ones I regularly see.
Money = Power. If I have money, I have power to do what I want.
Money = Love. If I have money, I can show others how much I love them.
Money = Safety. If I have money, I know I can meet my living needs. I feel secure in my future.
Money = Fun. Money is meant to enjoy and to do things that bring pleasure and excitement.
Money = Gifts. Money is meant to enrich others’ lives and to do good for others.
Usually, when a person is able to identify the meaning they assign to money, they’re able to get beyond arguments about money with their partner and get down to what’s really bothering them. Like the couple above who argued about money, they were able to finally put their arguments to rest as soon as they found out why money was so important to them.
When he identified that he viewed money as a symbol of how she prioritized her love for him and she realized that she viewed it as a symbol of freedom, they were able to stop arguing about money and start discussing the more important things to them. She was able to find other ways to show him he was a priority to her and he was able to give her freedom so she wasn’t feeling controlled.
Next time you’re fighting about money (yep, I can confidently say that there will be a next time). Take a step back and ask what you’re really arguing about. You’ll usually find it’s not about money at all.
Aaron Anderson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and owner of The Marriage and Family Clinic in Denver, CO.
He also writes for several publications online and in print all on the topic of marriages, families and children.
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