Finances as a Power Issue in Marriage
Janice and Brad married in their early thirties, after he'd worked his way up to top producer in high-tech sales, while she found herself stuck in bottom rung marketing jobs. Because they lived in the same high-cost metropolitan area, Janice had collected debts — car and student loans, credit cards totaling over $10,000, and a medical bill she was still paying off — prior to the marriage, which she then brought into it.
In the beginning, Brad, much in love, agreed to take on Janice's debts, saying he didn't mind helping her pay them off. The couple then co-mingled their finances into the standard (although problematic) one pot approach to marital money management.
While one partner taking on another's debts is not uncommon, it adds an imbalance to a new marriage, which can quickly create tension and foster manipulation of one partner by the other who may use money as an instrument of power. By the time Janice and Brad arrived in couples therapy, just two years into the marriage, her primary complaint was that Brad criticized her “constantly,” while Brad's complaint was their dormant sex life.
In this relationship, Janice, an attractive and bubbly young woman, had the superior social and verbal skills, while Brad nursed insecurities about his social awkwardness. Brad's superior financial position, and the fact that he'd accepted Janice's past debts, had become the instruments by which he attempted to control his wife.
The fact that Brad and Janice's sex life had become dormant was a likely indication of Janice's anger at Brad. Janice disliked her financial dependence on Brad, so she unconsciously punished him for the power this gave him over her by withholding sex. Brad was unnerved when Janice removed her affection, since her adoration permitted him to avoid his own feelings of low self-esteem.
When they marry, many young people find themselves — for the first time — accountable to another person for their money habits. Adding to this adjustment, expenses often rise sharply once a household of two (or three) is established, making smart money management not a choice but an absolute necessity. It's a time fraught with tensions and mistakes. You will be able to learn if you both make honesty your number one priority.
While it's legitimate to view the financial problems in a troubled relationship such as this one as symptoms of deeper issues, Janice and Brad's money issues soon took on a life of their own and became a force of destruction inside the marriage.
Because the dynamics evident in their story are typical of marriages within the first five years, it's vitally important to recognize how they can strain relationships, and then take steps to lessen these pressures. Starting a marriage with money problems is like exposing a fragile seedling to a drought. Its growth will be stunted; worse, it may wither and die.
Your Family Money Legacy
One of the main factors determining your money style as an adult is how your parents handled family finances while you grew up and see how your style may compare to theirs. Everyone doesn't respond exactly the same to the same set of childhood circumstances.
If your family of origin faced economic hardships, as an adult you could respond by developing a tendency to spend like there's no tomorrow to compensate for feelings of deprivation you may have had as a child, or conversely by hoarding every penny in fear of facing the same fate. It's important to take a close look at where you came from since parents are the primary models for joint money management for most people.
The most important piece of information to draw from a family history is your own “money story.” Was there a big emphasis on saving when you were growing up? Was this Mom's or Dad's idea or both? Did one parent counterbalance the other's money stance — for instance, did Mom hide “pin money” to compensate for Dad's impulse buying? If so, whose “side” did you take, overtly or not?
Each person has a story around money created by his upbringing, and how he's dealt with money as an adult before the marriage, as well as the consequences of those actions, which may still be present in his life.
Figuring Out Your Money Story
Did you receive an allowance as a child? What did you do to earn it?
When did you get your first paycheck? Did you spend or save some of it?
Were there fights over money in your parents' marriage?
What is your history with spending and saving?
Do you ever spend or save as an emotional reaction? For example, you have a fight with your partner and immediately go to the mall and buy a new outfit. Or, you have a dispute with your coworker and decide to cut back on the family food budget. In both cases, money is being used as an emotional fix, not as a rational reflection of your household budget priorities.
Are you by nature a risk taker or risk averse? How does this translate into your money style? It's possible that you take more physical than financial risks, for example, by mountain climbing or playing extreme sports. You could apply the same taste for risk to more than one area, including money, by gambling, day trading in the stock market, or investing in a new business.
All of these activities share one result: They produce adrenalin rushes for the risk taker. In many cases, the purpose of these rushes is to allow the risk taker to avoid his emotions, either the unpleasant feelings he has in the present or painful ones from the past.
Share Your Money Legacies
When you are finished compiling your own money story, it is imperative that you share it with your partner and encourage him to share his with you. By figuring out how you are similar or differ in money styles, you have important data to use in drawing up marital agreements and responsibilities around finances. For example, the detail-oriented partner who enjoys bookkeeping is the logical choice for the role of hands-on bill payer. The person whose file drawer looks like a trash can is not.
While it makes sense to select the partner with the better bookkeeping skills to handle the family books on an ongoing basis, it's also a good idea to occasionally trade roles. Give the one who tends to spend and not record checks the job of reconciling the monthly income and expenses. Have him then present the results to his partner. Learning and behavior modification are more likely to take place by doing.
It's also essential for married couples to agree on their financial goals. It's amazing how many young and middle-aged couples avoid coming to terms with different views on where their combined money should go. This would be like getting in the car and filling up the tank with gas but not having a destination for your journey.
Do you want to make saving for your child's college education your number one priority? What trade-offs are you willing to make between your children's needs and saving for your own retirement? Will you travel widely or spend vacations with family?
One partner's personal dreams can play a big part in his wants and needs for money in the marriage. Does he dream of retiring early in order to paint landscapes up and down the Pacific coastline? Such dreams may be fragile, or unconscious, and they are also often unexpressed between two people in a long-term marriage. Without knowing where you want to end up, it's impossible to select the right course to get there.