Ask a therapist: Is it money you're really fighting about?

Many times spouses are unable to handle their finances productively, which results in frequent conflicts about how and what has been spent. The level of stress that impacts other aspects of marital relationships and family life is real.

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  • Question: My spouse and I are unable to handle our finances productively, which results in frequent conflicts about how and what has been spent, money being wasted due to not having a workable system and budget. Concerns about meeting our financial obligations, and the related stress, impacts other aspects of our relationship and family life as well.

  • We have taken turns as money managers, paying the bills and reluctantly bringing any big concerns to the attention of our partner. We have had discussions about the need for a budget, but these always seem to break down into finger pointing and blaming so that nothing ever gets resolved. It seems that both of us feel that the other should change their behavior and attitude and this would go a long way toward solving the problem.

  • I’m concerned that left unresolved, this issue could cause serious harm to us as a couple and as a family. I’ve thought about counseling, but he is resistant and says it would cost too much — to which I respond that it would be cheaper than a divorce.

  • Do you have any specific suggestions or useful tips on how we could begin to address this issue in a constructive manner?

  • — Day Late and a Dollar Short

  • DearDay Late and a Dollar Short,

  • The general consensus among helping professionals is that couples fight more about money than they do about children, sex and the other challenges that can come along. While on the surface I can’t disagree with this observation, I think there is more to this than meets the eye.

  • When we think about what money means to us, words like security, comfort, social standing, power and relative worth come to mind. Therefore, money is tied to core needs and wants — and having what we perceive as enough, or not, can for us define who we are and how we believe others perceive us. There is nothing simple about that — which is why it is an area that trips up so many couples and can lead to frequent, intense and sometimes irrational outbursts.

  • Because this conflict comes from deeply held feelings and beliefs, it resides at least in part in the unconscious mind. When this is the case, it is very difficult to have a rational or thought out discussion due to the inability to engage our rational and thinking side. Therefore, the first steps toward finding a resolution would involve setting some ground rules for discussions and structuring the how and when of any money talks. In practice this would be something like agreeing to no yelling, name calling and storming away.

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  • You should sit down facing one another with no electronic or other distractions there to interfere with the discussion. You should take turns talking and wait until the other is finished before responding. To help avoid things breaking down into conflict, you agree beforehand that you will take a 10 minute time out if one or both of you feel the need. It is always a good idea to put a time limit on such discussions and agree that if you need more time you can decide together to continue or to talk again later.

  • Each of you should make a list before your first talk that identifies areas where you see room for a compromise on your end. This could be anything from making coffee at home instead of picking some up on the way to work, to larger issues like purchases of vehicles, cost of vacations and home furnishings or anything that comes to mind. You will be surprised at how long a list this can be once you have taken a close look at your expenditures.

  • It is not easy to change a dynamic like yours without the help of a trained professional. However, if you use these tips, avoid blaming, keep yourself truly open and present and communicate true sincerity on your part toward your spouse’s feelings and needs, you may be able to cause a shift in a positive direction. That would give you a good start and help him to respond in a more positive and open way. Then, who knows, he may feel encouraged enough to decide that outside help would be a good investment.

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Toni Coleman, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist. She is a well-known relationship expert and author, working with many publications, television and radio programs. Follow her on Twitter @CoachToni and FB at www.facebook.com/coachtoni.coleman. Toni writes for HopeAfterDivorce.org and FamilyShare.com.

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