‘Money’ tops the list of things couples fight about – but it doesn’t have to.

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What do couples fight about? Whether just starting dating, in a long term relationship, or already married and the honeymoon is over, it may seem like there is an endless list of topics that romantic partners clash about: he throws his dirty shirts on the floor, she insists her poodle sleep on the bed, and they can’t agree on whether they should fly to the Caribbean or visit in-laws in Minnesota during Christmas vacation. (Ok, so there are some things we all agree on!)

But in reality, we usually fight about the same big issues or disagreements over and over again, maybe just in different forms. And it may not be a surprise that fights about money top that least, beating out even arguments over bedroom intimacy, domestic duties, and extended family. Sad but true, couples fight – and break up – over money more than anything else.

Top 5 things couples fight about:

1.    Money
2.    Division of domestic responsibilities
3.    Sex
4.    Parents
5.    Power in the relationship

So why is money such a hot button issue, to the point that it drives an impassable wedge in between so many seemingly-happy relationships?

For most people, money is one of the most stressful and emotional issues. Often, our attitudes, beliefs, and values about work, money, security, and retirement were passed down from our parents starting at an early age, and so they are deeply ingrained, right or wrong.

The reality is that escalating arguments over money, more than any other reason (except perhaps infidelity) are most likely to signal the end of a relationship. In fact, studies have shown that fighting over money is a leading indicator of future divorce. But some studies, like a 2001 survey of 2,000 married couples over a 12-year period conducted by California State University, conclude that while finances do have a role in divorces, being incompatible, bedroom issues, a lack of emotional support, and abuse are bigger indicators of whether a couple will stay together or break up.

And before you start second guessing your current relationship because you both bicker or snipe about money from time to time, relationship experts and marriage counselors say that almost all couples have disagreements over dollars and cents.

“People should expect to fight about finances,” says Laurie Puhn, a New York City-based couples mediator. “It’s a part of any marriage and any long-term relationship. You will fight about finances.”

Since money is such a relationship red flag, what are the most common financial issues or topics we couples fight about?

1.    Risk tolerance.
2.    Financial objectives.
3.    Personalities and values.
4.    One person makes more than the other.
5.    Power dynamics in the relationship.
6.    Debt incurred before – or during – the relationship.
7.    The cost of raising children.
8.    Taking care of aging parents or family.

What are some common solutions to these problems? Many financial advisors suggest you set up separate bank accounts for your own personal and discretionary spending, and then a joint bank account for paying mutual bills like rent, food, etc. But that actually could dissolve the financial advantage of cohabitating, and further breed distrust and resentment over how each person is handling money. In fact, the National Center of Family and Marriage Research found that couples who share joint bank accounts are less likely to get divorced, and married couples who do not join their incomes are 145 percent more likely to end up in divorce.

So is the answer then just to get a pre-nuptial agreement? Probably not. The jury is still out on whether prenups ease financial ambiguity and expectations in a marriage or actually are a symptom of our high divorce rates. In fact, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that 63 percent of their members surveyed reported an increase in prenups over the last three years.

When I was researching this topic, I found plenty of articles that made a strong case for either side; to always get a prenup, or never get a prenup. But interestingly enough, the pro-prenup advice always came from business articles, while relationship articles stressed that if you felt you needed one, you probably shouldn’t get married. Of course the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, and for some people and situations, it’s the right thing, but it certainly won’t replace healthy communication, understanding, and respect around the topic of money to foster a healthy relationship.

Here are some strategies to stop the fighting about money:

1.    Communication
Open, constructive dialogue with the aim of understanding and accepting your partner, not just arguing to be “right” or prove your point, is the best way to unify a couple over the issue of money, even though you will never agree on everything.

2.    Map out common goals.
Sometimes, people want the same things; they just have two different ways of getting there. By mapping out your financial goals as a couple, you’ll ensure there is a finish line in site you both can work towards.

3.    Careful budgeting and planning.
Setting retirement goals is fine, but you’ll need a specific plan on how you’ll get there. Tracking your expenses and fine-tuning a budget that includes paying off debt, boosting savings, and funding retirement goals is paramount.

4.    Agree to disagree.
A healthy part of any dialogue between couples is agreeing to disagree, as you’ll never see eye to eye on every topic – including finances.

5.    Don’t try to change your spouse.
The origins of discontent in any relationship is when we try to change our partners, trying to mold them into our perfect image of what and who we think they should be. This is the same with attitudes and values about finances, and our goal should never be to change someone completely, just meet in the middle.

6.    Switch roles.
Some times in a relationship we get into ruts, entrenched in arguments again and again that only bring us further apart. One way to break this vicious cycle is to role-play and assume the viewpoint of your partner in the dialogue, which breeds sympathy and understanding.

If you continue to find yourself fighting about money in your relationship, it could be imminently helpful to seek counsel of two different professionals; first, a financial planner who can review your money situation clinically, and then, a marriage or relationship counselor, who can help sort out the real issues, removing fiscal fights as an obstacle to your happiness and ultimately bringing you closer as a couple.

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