Dear Neil: We have been fighting about money issues for years. We argued about money when we were doing very well, and we’re fighting about money now, when we’re not. We disagree on how money is to be spent, what our financial priorities are, how to handle it when we disagree about a purchase and how much credit card debt we should carry. Right now this is complicated by us earning less than half the income we were making two years ago. Why is money such a hot-button issue for us? We know we’re not the only people having to get by on less.
-Arguing in Washington
Dear Washington: There’s a good chance that you’re actually fighting about underlying subterranean issues that often drive our emotions on this subject. Here are some of the most common hidden issues related to money:
• Power and control: Are each person’s needs and desires around money considered equally, or does one person have more financial power than the other? Is one person considered more important than the other because s/he earns most of the money? Are my opinions and feelings valued and listened to, or are major decisions made without me? Especially if you’re someone with little or no income of your own, you may feel financially powerless—less than equal—while viewing your partner as quite powerful, which is likely to lead to you eventually withdrawing or withholding yourself emotionally, sexually or in some other way. If you want to reduce or eliminate this issue, make sure both of you feel you have more or less equal say about how joint money is to be spent, saved or invested, and what financial freedoms each person has.
• Acknowledgement/Recognition: Sometimes the unaddressed or unrecognized issue has to do with not being acknowledged or appreciated for what you contribute to the relationship. Whether your contribution is primarily a paycheck, supplemental income, sex, pregnancy and child care, household chores, cooking meals or of being the emotional lifeline of the household—if someone feels unacknowledged, undervalued, unappreciated or taken for granted, s/he will inevitably feel hurt, resentful and angry—which will lead to greater distance between the two of you. If you wish to defeat this issue, call attention on a regular basis to what your intimate partner brings to the relationship, and how his/her contribution to the relationship is vital, valued and appreciated.
• Trust: Can I trust you to do the right thing concerning our money? Can I trust that we will make important financial decisions together (so that our relationship feels like a partnership instead of two separate individuals)? Can I trust you to not take advantage of me financially?
• How important am I to you? If I see you valuing your own needs or honoring someone else’s desires more than you value my needs and desires, I will not feel cared for by you, as if my feelings or wishes are just not that important to you.
Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in the Denver and Boulder, CO, specializing in how people strengthen their intimate relationships. He can be reached at 303.758.8777, or e-mail him from his website www.heartrelationships.com.