In your marriage, does conflict about money sound like this?
“You spent HOW much on a new coat?” you say to your spouse.
It’s too painful to say what you really want to say in your marriage, I want you to take care of me. I want you to take care of the kids and the dog. Spending this much on a coat you don’t even need makes me feel like you don’t care about us.
But that’s too vulnerable. So, instead, you say to your spouse, “You only think about what you want. You never consider what the rest of us need.”
Money is one of the four core things that cause conflict in marriages.
Today’s fight about money is fueled by the moment you watched your mom pour milk out of the carton, mix half of it with powdered milk and pour the stretched milk back into the carton for your cereal.
Poverty doesn’t wear dollar bills. It’s dressed in the lumps of milk on your cheerios.
When you talk about how much money the coat costs, you don’t have to see the look of shame on your mother’s face when she hid the other half gallon of milk in two quart-jars she laid on their sides on the bottom shelf of the fridge behind the chili. She hid them so that when your hungry brother came home from school and drank all the milk he could find, there would still be lumps to wet your Cheerios tomorrow morning.
In your marriage, money = security. So, because you feel terrified, you try to be rational. You talk dollars and cents because they can be measured.
Marriage fights about money focus on dollars instead of desire
Fighting about dollars instead of desire shields your memory from the look on your mother’s face when, as she closes the refrigerator door, she catches your eye, and you both look away.
Then you grow up. You get a dog. You buy a fridge of your own.
In your fridge there’s always a gallon of whole milk on the door, even if you seldomly drink it.
But when your dog gets run over and rushed to the vet, you need more than milk money. The surgery is expensive: many times the available limit you have on your credit card.
That’s when you make your vow. I will have a savings account. I will be able to pay for the people and creatures I love. My child will never catch me hiding something on the bottom shelf of the fridge.
And then your spouse spends buckets on a coat. The coat that costs the same as three payments to the veterinarian.
No wonder you argue. No wonder you rail about a coat.
But your spouse knows nothing of the vet bill. The vet bill was paid off before you were married. And your spouse certainly knows nothing about the milk buried at the back and the bottom of the fridge. You’d even forgotten about that.
Marriage + money promise
Here’s what I promise you: until you and your spouse can have financial discussions about the vet and the fridge, you’ll keep arguing about money.
But when your spouse can hear about the vet and the fridge—and cautionary note: sometimes it takes telling the story more than once for your spouse to truly hear—your marriage will no longer be plagued by money conflicts.
Wait. I misspoke: You’ll also need to listen to discover the money stories that live inside your spouse.
What you don’t know right now is that your spouse also had a childhood before you were married. When your spouse was little and Dad left, their family went to live with Uncle Frank. While they were all safe and had warm places to sleep, there was a secret hanging in the coat closet.
Frank’s coat closet was stuffed with four seasons for his family: rain coats, and spring sweaters, parkas, and rainbow umbrellas to hold overhead while splashing in summer puddles.
It was a good house that got your spouse’s mom back on her feet. There were soft beds and warm dinners that included dessert. But inside your spouse there was a hidden longing. Inside that stuffed closet, your spouse had only one hanger to put away a singular coat.
Knowing what you desire takes patience
We use money to measure our desires. Do we have enough milk? Why does everyone else have so many coats?
When you can talk to your spouse about the desires buried beneath the dollars, you will connect. Conflict will be a thing of the past in your marriage.
But unearthing those desires takes time. Even if you remember to tell your spouse about the lumps on the cheerios, you forget to tell them about the buried quart jars.
The stories that live at the core of our desires hide. They hide to protect us from feeling pain. They hide because we’re not yet ready to see them.
Be patient. Be patient with your spouse and with yourself. It might take years of throwing out spoiled milk before you remember the hidden quart jars at the back and at the bottom.
When you find yourself fighting over dollars call a time out.
Take a break: It might be an hour; it might be a week.
A break allow you to pause the fear response.
When you reconnect, begin the conversation with curiosity about your spouse’s desires as well as your own.
Trust that your spouse has a reason to buy a coat. Trust that you have a reason to create a savings account. As much as you possibly can, talk about desires more often than dollars.
Desire-conversations will heal the money conflicts in your marriage. If you need some help with how to spend money on things you desire, check out this article by my mentor, Martha Beck.