Finance symbolises various aspects of a marital relationship. The matter of how much one earns, who earns more, etc., are directly related to a couple's sense of commitment to the marriage, sense of security and mutual respect.
When people fight over money, it is usually a front for other real issues or concerns:
“I feel ungrateful whenever I argue with my husband. After all, he works hard to support the whole family,” Alice said.
“Everyone in my family turns to me for money, as if that's all I'm good for,” John said.
Money indirectly indicates power, control and sense of self-worth within a couple. If one partner is working it is easy for the breadwinner to assume unspoken power and “right” in major decisions.
On the other hand, the non-income earning spouse—usually the woman—can easily give up her own ideas and allow her sense of self-worth to diminish just because she feels she is not contributing as much to the family as the breadwinner, her husband.
When finance becomes an issue, it is because one or both partners measure their value and self-worth against their earnings. The message they are giving each other is: the more you earn, the better a person you are. Money becomes a weapon in a power struggle. Such ideas can destroy a family. Even in many otherwise well-adjusted families, couples will, without thinking, buy into this idea and let it damage the marital relationship.
“George, if only you'd take on a few more extra projects, then we can retire earlier,” Lucy said.
“Lucy, if only you'd stop spending all the money on remodelling the house, I could retire now!” said George.
Having different goals in managing money can be a source of conflicts and frustrations. A couple may have totally different ideas on how to spend vacations, on purchasing the family car, etc. Yet without communicating their desires and expectations to each other, people assume their own wants "make perfect sense" and should take preference over their spouse's. This eventually creates resentment and argument.
“I told you not to put so much money in stocks. There went all our savings in the market crash!” the wife said.
Sometimes, when there are unexpected financial demands or losses, people panic and tend to blame others for things beyond anyone's control. Investment losses, a big tax bill, or other financial strain can easily provoke tension between spouses. Unless there is mutual support to help cope with a trying situation, further mistrust will develop.
Arguments over money are usually a camouflage for other problems within a marriage, such as lack of trust and communication, sexual dissatisfaction or resentment towards one's spouse. If money is a frequent source of argument, people should evaluate the relationship as a whole.
Above all else, it is important for couples to separate money from power. A good marital relationship is based on mutual respect and shared responsibilities, rather than measured by how much money a spouse makes. A family is a unit. Therefore, couples should treat the money earned by one or both partners as a contribution to the common good rather than as a contest between two individuals.
Secondly, partners should openly communicate expectations and ideas on how to manage family finances. In this way they can discuss and negotiate their own view and leave no room for guessing or mistrust.
Third, take an active role in sharing financial decisions rather than become a blamer or victim. If one spouse allows the other to take over the financial decisions, he or she has given up their rights and should be prepared to face the consequences. Be responsible for your own actions rather than blame others or play helpless.
Fourth, set a flexible two-year budget together. Write out all the financial assets, liabilities and projected transactions and propose a future budget as a guideline. This can help a couple to evaluate their financial standing and manage it together in a realistic manner.
Lastly is to set aside twenty minutes weekly or bi-weekly at a pre-agreed time to discuss and sort out budget matters. These regular sessions will promote cooperation and respect, and prevent money issues from spilling over into other family issues.
Dr. Cathy Tsang-Feign is a Hong Kong-based psychologist and author of the book Keep Your Life, Family and Career Intact While Living Abroad. She is the former columnist for the South China Morning Post and American in Britain on topics of psychology and adjustment for expatriates and their families.