An unknown, but apparently bitter person once wrote, ‘Valentine’s Day is when a lot of married people are reminded what a poor shot Cupid really is.’ Though that might be a bit overstated, there are certain conflicts in relationships that I see over and over again, and one of those involves issues about money.
Dollars and cents can represent a lot more than just the basic necessities. In a marriage or family relationship, money often becomes the means through which conflicts are played out. Though some fights and disagreements may seem to be about money, they’re actually about other matters entirely. People quickly learn about their partners’ true priorities (both good and bad) when it comes time to decide what, or what not, to purchase.
Money is powerful. It objectifies and defines values, priorities and needs. It gives shape to work and accomplishments. But when preparing to enter into a long-term relationship, attitudes about money can become an important clue to identifying a future partner’s values and ideals.
Before two people choose to live together in a committed relationship, it’s important they come to an agreement about finances. What kind of budget will exist, given both incomes? On what will the dollars be spent? It’s not shallow or materialistic to face these things ahead of time. Both parties deserve to know how their interests match up so they can avoid arguments and painful misunderstandings down the road. After two people have gotten married or otherwise committed to one another, the pressure is on to make things work. At least beforehand there’s still time to step back from the relationship if financial issues can’t be resolved without endless conflict. When it comes to money and relationships, the best surprise is, indeed, NO surprise.
If you don’t know what your partner-to-be spends (and why), then you probably don’t know what his or her deeper priorities and values are. I sometimes see couples who didn’t given these matters the slightest thought before they made that legal and/or emotional commitment to one another. All of a sudden, there they are in my office, bickering over money.
Let’s say you’re already married or committed to a significant other, and you’ve discovered that there are real differences in how you both want to handle the finances. First, try to calmly sort it out. Attitude is everything. Don’t be angry that things aren’t exactly what you imagined they would be. Everyone’s priorities and desires tend to change over time. Now you have to clear things up, and it’s important to assume that you can.
If this sounds familiar, here are three suggestions that might help resolve arguments over spending and/or saving money:
1. Don’t frame these conflicts as disagreements over finances; look at them as differences in priorities. ‘Do we take a vacation, or remodel the bathroom?’ You’re not really fighting over money itself. You’re fighting over how soon, or how much, money should be spent on something. Work together to find compromises. They can be a lot easier to reach than you think.
2. When discussing things, don’t focus on control. Focus on finding a solution that pleases you both. Say things like, ‘How about this plan? It helps get us started on the remodeling, but also helps us have a vacation before the end of the year.’ Don’t say things like, ‘We always do things your way! I want things my way for once!’ It might FEEL good to say that (and you might even have a point), but that’s no way to motivate somebody you profess to love. When searching for compromise, unilateral control is out of the question. Maybe you take turns getting some of what you want in the short run, and maybe all of what you want in the long run — not a bad trade for a more harmonious relationship. If you can’t get anywhere, an objective third party like a friend or a skilled counselor can help.
3. Approach these discussions thoughtfully, not emotionally. If you disagreed with your next-door neighbor about something, you wouldn’t charge into their house screaming, ‘You always get your way, you idiot! Now it’s my turn!’ (At least I hope you wouldn’t.) Even though family relationships are the most emotional, why inflict that hysteria on the one with whom you’ve chosen to share your life?
Valentine’s Day is a good time to think about how important your relationship is to you. So remember: When money matters, cooperation is the key to a happy life together. Treating the one you love with care and consideration will trump the value of a dollar every time.