Money fights are tensions that center around a couple’s finances. They can range from mild disagreements to all-out wars. Talking about money is essential because the way a couple manages their funds can make or break their relationship. The biggest problems are when unaddressed tensions linger, and couples are not able to break out of a negative spiral. This is when money fights can lead to disaster, including the end of the relationship.
The good news is that even if you and your loved one are in the midst of ongoing financial stress, there is hope. Let’s start by directly answering the question, Must couples have money fights when their budget is tight? The obvious answer is, “no!” Money fights are only one of many options. Although financial hardships can tear a couple apart, they can also bring a couple together. As we will see, the most significant difference between couples that fight and those who team-up is their perspective!
Money Fights vs. Relationship Growth
Even when finances are tight, couples don’t have to fight. In fact, a tight budget can become a catalyst for closeness and growth. I know because my wife and I are one of these couples! So why do money fights sink some relationships while others use financial hardships as an opportunity to grow? I believe our story helps to answer this question and provides insights into how couples can use financial setbacks to their advantage.
A few months into our marriage, our family ran into some unexpected financial challenges. Sure, family budgeting is always tricky. But blended families like ours have additional obstacles. For my wife, Jenny, and I, this involved ongoing attorney’s fees, plus a costly move to be closer to my daughters. Undoubtedly, I was stressed!
As a guy, I felt responsible. When our budget tightened, I told myself I was failing as a husband. Then, one evening, Jenny gave me an incredible gift. “Honey, I know you are stressed,” she said. “However, I think every couple has money problems. You and I are simply getting ours out of the way early.”
After that conversation, it felt like an enormous weight lifted from my chest. I no longer viewed our money problems as my issue. The two of us were in this together, and that made all the difference. If blended family expenses have you feeling down, or if you are facing financial setbacks do to COVID, the current state of the economy, or the hundreds of other money setbacks that couples face. Here are three ideas for relieving the pressure together.
Three Strategies to Prevent Money Fights
1. Prevent Money Fights by Isolating Problems
To stop money fights, stat by making the problem the problem. Couples who get stuck in money fights point fingers at one another. Each person accuses the other of being the problem. On the other hand, couples who draw closer understand that they are not the problem, and neither is their partner. Instead, the problem is the problem.
Happy couples identify the specific issue at hand. Then they work together to address the problem. The first step in isolating the problem is to stop pointing fingers and to pinpoint the exact issue. The second step is to name the concern. Examples a couple might give to money problems include:
- Poor budgeting
- Income deficit
- Past-due bills
- Lack of planning
The name you assign will vary depending on the details of your circumstances. Wise couples understand that money issues are not a problem that belongs to either person. So they choose a title that does not place blame. Naming the problem “Your spending habits” is almost guaranteed to lead to a money fight. Calling it “overspending” removes blame. Once you have identified your financial arch-nemesis, the two of you can attack the problem together.
Diving Deeper Into Isolating Money Problems
In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis writes, “A sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on.” This is precisely what isolating the problem is all about. To isolate the problem, treat financial issues as you would a math problem.
- Work backward from where you are until you can pinpoint the exact breakdown.
- Then focus on the financial issue and that alone.
- Make the error the issue and not your spouse’s character.
While it’s true that character issuers exist (and we all have them) criticizing your spouse, showing contempt (such as sneers and eye-rolling), and placing blame, only intensify money fights. Relationship Researcher John Gottman refers to these things as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (with horseman number four being stonewalling). These behaviors cause relationships to self-destruct like nothing else. So avoid them as you would orange juice and toothpaste, bathtubs and toasters, or better yet, treat them like a rabid dog.
A better way is to assume your loved one has good intentions at heart. After all, I have never known a husband or a wife who wants to bankrupt their family or drive their family into massive debt. In our story, Jenny and I initially isolated our problem by calling it an over-spending issue. We had just enough income to cover our bills, so long as we both stuck, hard and fast, to our budget.
Later, my friend Erik helped us isolate another problem (I’ll share more about this in a minute). Our circumstances changed, and we now had a “shovel problem.” That is, our income wasn’t large enough to fill in the financial hole we dug. In our first scenario, Jenny and I were able to team-up and stick to our budget. In the second, we partnered together to “get a bigger shovel.”
For couples trapped in money fights, Lewi’s advice is pure genius. Don’t merely go on and act as if the problem doesn’t exist. That is no good, and I’ve never known money problems to solve themselves. And don’t heap blame, shame, and guilt onto your loved one either. Instead, treat the money issue as you would a math problem. Find the error and work it afresh from that point. This is what isolating the problem is all about!
2. Prevent Money Fights by Reframing Your Circumstances
Couples who reframe their circumstances are experts at changing their perspectives. Initially, I told myself that tight finances meant I was a failure. In my mind, our financial situation was horrible, awful, and proof that I wasn’t a good husband. As a result, I thoroughly stressed myself out. However, self-abuse never improves anything or anyone. This kind of stinking thinking is sometimes called awfulizing or catastrophizing. It’s the ability to take a negative situation, magnify it in our midst, and make the problem 100 times worse. Doing these things will only intensify money fights.
Fortunately, with Jenny’s support, I was able to reframe our challenge as a typical blended family experience. Although you and I cannot choose what happens to us, we can decide what meaning we will assign to each difficulty. In this case, reframing our situation as an average experience that all couples go through allowed me to push through my fears and focus on solutions. Turning our attention to solutions is an excellent way to ease tensions and eradicate money fights.
3. Prevent Money Fights with Small Steps
After making substantial progress in paying off our bills, Jenny and I were blindsided by an unexpected bill. When I complained to a wise friend, he offered a startling response. “So, Jed, how can you earn an extra $800 each month?” At first, I wanted to scream and toss my phone across the room like a two-year-old child. Fortunately, I restrained myself. There was, indeed, something I could do. At my friend’s prompting, I took one small step forward, then another, and another. It wasn’t easy, but with each step, our hope grew.
Couples can learn from our story and reduce money fights by breaking big goals down into small actionable steps. For example, if you need to earn an extra $100 a week, first figure out what reaching this financial goal looks like. Perhaps you’re a writer, like me, and increasing your income involves publishing another book. Maybe your goal is cutting your spending, and extreme couponing is the method you will use to get there.
Once you know your desired outcome, your next task is to break this down into as many steps as possible. Then, celebrate every tiny step you take. For extreme couponers, each coupon you find and use is a win. For writers, every new sentence on the page is worth celebrating. If you’re a couple combating overspending, every time you put an item back on the shelf, take a moment to rejoice!
Couples who celebrate wins often, will find it nearly impossible to get stuck in lingering money fights!
Are all money fights bad?
So are all money fights bad? The easy answer is, Of course not!
Typically, fights begin when one person experiences a strong emotion—such as anger, anxiety, or fear. Feelings are neither good nor bad. They simply are. Negative emotions, such as anger, fear, and anxiety, are a lot like a warning light on the dashboard of a car. They signal that something is wrong and needs to be addressed. Usually, the worst thing to do is to ignore the warning light, as the problem will persist, grow over time, and eventually, more considerable damage is done.
Similarly, couples who don’t talk about money concerns are setting themselves up for a money fight. These couples allow the pressure to build until someone explodes. The wrong ways to deal with money concerns are to nag, stay paralyzed by fear, and point fingers in blame. The right ways are to get connected and have healthy money conversations. Then, team-up with your spouse to tackle the debt together. After all, your relationship is far greater than any money issue.
Surviving and Thriving in Financial Storms
I wish I could say these strategies were all it took for Jenny and me to eliminate debt. However, our story is one of two steps forward, followed by one step back. These ideas are not a magic wand. Instead, they are a process for staying connected amid the storm.
Not long ago, Jenny and I took another step backward. Unfortunately, this setback happened right before our seventh anniversary. The timing could not have been worse. As I grasped Jenny’s hands in mine, she smiled gently and summed up how we both felt. “Jed, you and I have been through tight spots before. The two of us will get through this together, just like we always do.” A short time later, we departed on a beautiful anniversary celebration.
If you and your loved one are in a financial fix, as many blended families are, there is hope. Today, Jenny and I are going on an amazing eight years of marriage. She often comments about how the bonus challenges we faced early in our marriage helped us learn how to get connected and stay connected fast. In some ways, they become a blessing in disguise. The principles now only helped us tackle our fiscal challenges in the past. They continue to work to this day, and I wholeheartedly believe they will also work for you!
Continue the Conversation
How do you and your loved one stop the downward spiral and money fights? Do you have a secret for teaming up, planning, and budgeting together that you’d like to share? What have the two of you learned about getting back on the same page?
Jenny and I would love to hear from you and learn from your experiences. So please feel free to share them in the comments below! Oh, and what other relationship questions do you have? This post is part of an ongoing series on relationship questions and answers. So if there is a lingering relationship question you’ve wanted to ask, be sure to let us know that too!
Diving Deeper into Relationship Joy
Finally, if you’d like to dive deeper into strategies for breaking out of money fights, connecting better, and growing your relationship, I’d love to connect! I now offer a free coaching call to anyone who wants to see if coaching is right for them.
If you are at least 10 percent interested in taking your parenting to a new level, then let’s connect. Here is where you can book your free coaching call!
You also might want to check out I Thrive community, where we dive into the topics of parenting, relationships, stress management, leadership, and doing life well.
Chat more soon, Jed