The Financially Incompatible Couple

Dear Toni--
My spouse Peter and I have a solid relationship with one big exception--how we view and handle our finances. Both of us work outside the home and I am the primary wage earner. We have two children and I also handle most of the parenting responsibilities. In other words, I carry more weight for the family and this is especially true regarding the concern and management of our finances.

I'm the one who insists on, has set up, and handles our savings and investments. I knew when we first got together that he was less concerned or focused on this and since we had everything else going for us, I thought it wouldn't be a big issue down the road. After all, I am both adept at and willing to take primary responsibility for this. The problem now is that Peter and I have very different attitudes about spending--he never has a budget and spends freely on what I consider frivolous items and I always set my upper limit and carefully consider any purchase beforehand. The result is conflict over the bills that I am left to worry about and handle paying.

This often comes to a head at the holidays as Peter likes to go all out on gifts for our immediate and extended families. I am fine with giving gifts, but have attempted to sit down with my husband and create a budget that would allow us to participate in the celebrations without being left with a large debt in January. Peter is willing to hear me out and appears open to my suggestions, but then he goes out and spends as though we never had the discussion. This feels very passive-aggressive to me and leads me to feeling angry and resentful--and being labelled Scrooge by my family.

I fear this could lead to a loss of respect, trust and maybe worse over time. I would really appreciate any thoughts, suggestions or recommendations you could offer. --Bah Humbug!

Dear Bah Humbug!,

The consensus from years of accumulated research on marriage is that financial incompatibility is the number one factor in marital conflict and/or divorce. In other words, money is what couples fight about most and is the primary reason for divorce. However, I have always believed that this finding is what is left after everything else is distilled--so I see it as more of a symptom than the root problem. If I am right then what is at the core of this issue? It's the couples? inability to effectively communicate their feelings, needs, wants, and concerns to one another, and after doing so, find healthy compromises that allow for a win-win solution.

This probably sounds very broad and even confusing to you, so let me break it down using you and Peter as an example. You have certain strongly felt values about the importance of money to your security and long-term well-being--and this is probably even truer since you became a parent. You want Peter to really hear you when you speak to him about your feelings and concerns and how you are acting in what you believe is the best interest of you as a couple and family. You also want him to understand that you are not trying to control him or tell him how to feel or in this case, celebrate the holiday. What you are looking for is a middle ground you can both live with. How am I doing so far?

Peter seems to be missing at least some of your message. We can probably assume he hears the part about having a budget and since he is willing to sit and listen, it can be assumed he knows you need him to do this and therefore makes an effort to comply. However, he then goes out and spends as though he completely missed the part about an agreed upon budget or perhaps came up with his own, thinking that is what you were suggesting. The bottom line is that he listened, nodded and offered some verbal agreement, then went out and blew the budget. Somehow key information was lost in translation.

Since a problem with communication is often at the core of a couple's conflict, this is where I recommend you place your focus. It is hard to do this without some professional help as you and Peter have an established set of dynamics you have been reinforcing throughout your relationship. Breaking out of your usual dance is not easy without an objective and trained third party--at least to get you started with some new dance steps. Therefore, I suggest you enlist the help of an experienced couple's therapist who can help each of you to talk so the other person both listens to and hears the intended message. Once you have acquired some new communication skills and tools, the next challenge would be to put them to use in order to achieve compromises that allow you both to walk away with enough to make it work. Again, this is what an experienced marital counselor does best--and by addressing this soon, you avoid further damage to your already strained relationship.

Is it possible that this could be a deal breaker issue for your marriage? Yes, this is always possible. However if you both have a strong commitment to one another, your marriage and family and both of you are willing to seek compromise--there is hope. It will come down to what you each value most and what you are willing to do to have and hold it.

(from December 2016)

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"Compatibility Challenges"

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Toni Coleman, LCSW
Phone: 703-847-1768


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