When it comes to money, opposites attract. Yep, according to a 2009 University of Pennsylvania and Northwestern University study of married couples, contrasts often prevail around finances, despite the fact that our similarities—e.g., shared interests—are usually the biggest romantic draw. In other words…
Tightwads & spendthrifts have the hots for each other…initially.
That helps explain why money is a source of stress in so many relationships. Add the cost of children to the mix and it’s no wonder persistent financial disagreements, especially around debt, dampen marital happiness.
Take Jack and Ann*, for example. They’ve been together 6 years; they both have fulltime jobs and come home each night to a couple of great kids, ages 1 and 3.
When they first got together, Jack loved Ann’s ease with money and didn’t think twice about her spending habits. “Money is energy,” she used to tell him. “If I keep it locked away, it stagnates. I need to let it flow.” At the time, Jack wanted to flow more.
Though she wouldn’t have admitted it then, Ann appreciated his self-discipline around money. She thought they complemented each other.
Like a lot of couples with contrasting money styles, getting married not only meant Jack and Ann began to share financial responsibilities, it also meant sharing debt.
Once that happened, once Jack “inherited” Ann’s spending patterns and, especially, once they had children, he saw her as financially foolish and, more than that, reckless in her buying-habits, especially with kids’ toys and clothes.
For Ann, what once looked like proof of Jack’s self-discipline and responsibility morphed into him being a control-freak; a man who’s increasingly rigid and ungenerous, especially when it comes to their children.
How have they responded to these dramatically altered financial portraits of each other? Jack’s tried to forbid Ann from buying toys to which she’s reacted by, um, buying more. One day, he got so frustrated he cut up their credit cards.
She volleyed back by hording cash, getting a credit card on the sly, and buying kids’ stuff without him knowing; meaning, she responded with financial secrecy.
I know, I know, some of you are thinking to yourselves:
I’d never order my spouse around like that! OR…
How horrible to be a secret spender and lie!
But here’s the thing: Acting out in response to things our spouses do or say—or don’t do or say—happens fairly often and, I’d venture, even those among us who are appalled by Jack or Ann’s behavior have logged at least one less-than-stellar reaction to our beloveds at some point in our relationship.
Alas, efforts to restrain our mate’s behaviors are usually temporary or amplify precisely what we’re trying to control. And, just as our bids to control others feel oppressive and constricting, spending more or hiding expenditures erode trust.
What to do if we have contrasting attitudes, and behaviors, around money?
One approach is to tackle debt. If debt’s a major source of marriage conflict, then diminishing or getting rid of it helps to resolve money issues. Logical, right?
Except managing debt—or at least starting there—keeps us so focused on the bottom line, we inadvertently make Jack’s opinion more right. But the truth is less about who’s right—after all, in our relationships, most if not all perspectives are right…partially—and more about figuring out how to navigate our financial and other differences.
Before turning our attention to debt, I suggest first spending time better understanding each other. Doing so creates a foundation from which team-strategies can emerge.
Our attitudes and behaviors around money often reflect our values and priorities in life. If we discover and share what drives our attitudes and behaviors, we can find ways to appreciate differences and work collaboratively.
So ask each other a few questions:
What’s important to you about your approach to money? How does your approach support your sense of fulfillment? How do you think it serves our family?
Now, acknowledge at least 1 element of your spouse’s money-attitude you genuinely think has merit (and, no, I don’t believe you can’t find 1). Finally, brainstorm about how to honor both of your money-attitudes, even if only partially and unevenly.
The goal isn’t to get our own way. It’s to hear each other out, validate our differing approaches to money, and negotiate a new strategy together.
Who knows? We might discover that us tightwads and spendthrifts still have the hots for each other, even after we get married, even after we have kids.
*Names and details have been changed to protect privacy.