I often encounter couples who, even after many years of marriage, maintain separate finances and bank accounts. What makes certain couples reach the decision to handle money in this way? It all depends on the individuals involved. Some people like their personal relationships more communal than others. For example, no matter how much each partner earns, they put all the money into a single account and share it equally. This approach presupposes an entirely different set of expectations than if accounts and finances are kept separate.
Others, however, believe each partner should have the right to, and be solely responsible for, the money that he or she earns. Entering into a marriage suggests that the partners want to share with one another. They supposedly value one another as crucially important in their lives. For those people, it’s not a sacrifice to pool their money, as long as each partner is truly productive to the best of his or her ability.
Given that income is typically a function of the market, two individuals can be equally productive even though one makes more money than the other. You might, for example, believe in your spouse’s musical abilities and support her in developing that talent, even though, for a long period, she may enjoy little or no income.
In my experience, those who insist on separate finances in a marriage often feel they have been taken advantage of in the past. They don’t want to repeat that experience, and may want to shelter some of their money in the event of a divorce. We live in an adversarial and litigious age, and that mindset has, to some extent, transferred itself to marriage and family. Many women feel safer if they can keep their finances separate. They prefer this sense of autonomy, as opposed to the traditional notion of a woman depending upon a man for her livelihood. Some women make more money than their husbands, and prefer to keep finances separate for the same reason that many men do.
Does separating finances make for more or less fighting over financial issues in a marriage? That depends on the particular couple. If each partner prefers to arrange his or her finances separately, then they are, by definition, less likely to fight about money. Serious conflict over money usually arises when one member of the relationship wants to handle shared finances one way, and the other member wants to do it differently. One advantage to separate finances is that neither party can assume that he/she has automatic access to the others’ money. That sense of personal boundaries, at least in this context, is represented by this usually unspoken emotion: “I made this money and it belongs to me. You can certainly talk with me about using it to buy something you want. In many cases I’ll be happy to give or loan it to you. I passionately love you, after all, and my interests are closely tied to yours. But we still have to talk about it first. You can’t simply assume that my money is automatically yours.”
The overwhelming majority of married couples I see in my practice have joint accounts. When they arrive in my office, fighting over money, sometimes I suggest they separate their accounts, if only as a temporary measure. Interestingly, they look at me like I’m crazy. It’s like questioning motherhood or apple pie. I suspect that the couples who separate their money are not fighting about it as much, and therefore are less likely to present for counseling. I’m not recommending anything regarding this highly personal decision, but if your marriage or romantic relationship is plagued by fights over money, it’s something to think about.
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