Ask the experts: Can money disputes between couples ever be resolved?

Hi Verity, hi Nic: My husband and I fight a lot about money. I like spending on life’s little luxuries, but he is a bit of a scrooge. But being tight is, I reckon, such an unattractive quality and this is creating real tension. I am not reckless – we are comfortably off and I’m not out spending up large. But, if Covid has taught me anything, it’s that I want to live a little more! In your experience, can this kind of situation ever really get resolved or am I better to pull the plug now? The irony isn’t lost on me that splitting would leave me in a worse financial position, but at least I’d be free to do what I want with my half. – Meg

Hi Meg

The short answer is, “In our experience, yes, you can resolve this kind of situation”. Whether you and your partner have the skills to resolve your differences is a different question.

When two people decide to share their lives, they are never identical in all ways. Dealing with differences and resolving the disagreements that inevitably arise is fundamental to a strong relationship. It can be learned and is vital to prevent unhealthy conflict or resentment and tensions building up.

There are some classic areas where couples fall into unproductive conflict: parenting, money, sex, domestic labour, discretionary free time, relations with extended family and close friends, and the use of alcohol and drugs are the most common in our experience. From our point of view, these are “just” the content.What matters is the “process” – how you treat each other and how you talk to each other as you address your differences.

Couples can usually resolve differences and find a common approach if they slow down, avoid becoming defensive or polarised and try to stay caring of each other (you can still be caring of someone who you are finding frustrating).Conflict is a chance for greater intimacy if you play your cards right; an opportunity to learn more about yourself and your partner.

Staying open and connected when you disagree requires that both of you feel listened to, respected and understood.It also needs you both to have examined your own standpoints for irrationality and unhelpful motivations.

As attachment expert Dr Stan Tatkin once said: “You can be ‘right’, or you can be in relationship. Pick one (you can’t be both).” Due to our insecurities about ourselves, many of us need to be “right” and will reflexively abandon the relationship. Of course, if we are right, then our partner has to be wrong. We get defensive and critical to make our partner wrong or bad when they disagree with us. We treat them as the problem to be fixed or even the enemy to be defeated rather than seeing our differences as a resource to be utilised.

In your question, your partner gets described by you as “a scrooge” and “tight”, and even “unattractive”. These are negative and invalidating terms.Meanwhile, you position yourself as reasonable: “I am not reckless” and “I’m not out spending up large”. Then you reach for a powerful justification of an epidemic to validate your point of view, to prove it is “right”.

This criticism, defensiveness and justification will reliably lead to your partner getting his back up and responding in kind.Dealing with differences that way makes resolving them almost impossible. At the same time, you seem to feel controlled by your spouse rather than an equal partner. Yet, unless your partner is aggressively dominating or you fear for your safety, that is usually a sign you have not learned how to be effectively assertive.

When you disagree, being “in relationship” begins with accepting and behaving as if your spouse is an equally valid person with an equally valid point of view.That their viewpoint is different from yours does not make it wrong.If you want the conflict to remain civil and your partner to stay connected to you, you need to explicitly show and tell them this.You can say to them,”I see it differently, but I want to know more about what you think and why you think it.I might have missed something, or there may be something for me to learn.”After all, you did invite this person into your life because you thought they were pretty OK.So, even if they have a different approach to something, maybe exploring their thinking might be wise.

Often when couples differ significantly, there can be something valid about both their points of view and they can draw on the “two heads are better than one” philosophy.Take the best of both approaches and arrive at a better synergistic outcome than either of your original ideas.On the topic of money, your difference is typical and, actually, ideal.Every relationship needs a “saver” and a “spender”.The former to keep you safe, now and in retirement, and the latter to make sure your life is worth living along the way.

Most people know they shouldn’t be so defensive or critical but struggle to behave differently.Being critical or defensive is usually a pointer that there are unconscious reactions, compensations for past experiences, biases or fears at play.Uncovering and understanding these is what can make resolving conflict so intimate.

Examples might be “I grew up with my mother showing her love by buying me things so you as the person who loves me should let me buy luxuries”, or “I grew up in poverty so your spending scares me and I want to stop you”. Realising that your issue is not about money but about feeling loved or safe means you can stop fighting about finances and focus on the underlying needs.

What we are saying is that there is no quick fix for a situation like yours.We are recommending you have a slow, spacious, curious and respectful talk with your partner.That you both unpack your approaches to money and go deeper into all that influenced the formation of your approach to spending. We would expect that you may realise that, firstly, there is a lot more going on here than just a difference about expenditures.Secondly, that you will come to a place where neither of you feels that your approach is the only way and so crucial that you would end your relationship over it.

If you have not grown up in environments where people care about working things through more than defending their corner, then there is a bit to learn about creating this kind of intimate conversation.It is worth learning as it can lead to a better understanding of yourself and your partner and ultimately to the forging of what “our” approach to spending is going to be.

• Verity & Nic are psychologists and family therapists who have specialised in relationship and sex therapy for over 25 years.They have been working on their own relationship for more than 40 years and have two adult children.

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