Marriage Counseling, Getting a Divorce: What to do when you fight about money?

 In Money Habits & Attitudes Blog

Want a divorce? Why couples get divorced?

There are a lot of reasons for divorce. However, studies show the most common reason why a husband and wife fight, go to marriage counseling and end a marriage is money. According to PayPal’s third annual “Can’t Buy Me Love” survey, the top reasons why couples fight are:

  1. Money is the number one cause of arguments among American couples (31 percent)
  2. Household chores (28 percent)
  3. In-laws (22 percent)
  4. Sex (15 percent)

Research from Utah State University shows that arguments about finances are the best indicator of divorce.

Of course, the same reasons that couples look for a divorce lawyer are the same reasons why a husband and wife seek out a therapist for marriage counseling too.

Why do couples fight about money?

Money is an issue that’s related to many parts of a relationship. It’s an indicator and a proxy for big issues. Money, on its own (how much is in the bank, how much you make, what you spend, etc.), is rarely why couples fight in actuality.

Instead, how a husband and wife relate to each other about money shows how they connect about other topics. For example, fights about money might really be about: freedom, security, esteem, generosity, power, success, self-worth, independence, status, acceptance, confidence, love, or trust.

Of course, there may be real, valid reasons why couples disagree about money and why they have issues with love, power, security, trust, etc. Two people might really define success differently. What is love? How to trust? Even people who grow up in similar environments – raised in the same town by parents of the same socioeconomic class, the same religion, etc. – there can be big differences in how one answers. Often those issues are hard to pinpoint and discuss. It can even be hard when couples attend marriage prep classes.

Before marriage, couples tend to focus on what they have in common. They don’t always look at where they differ. Why look for trouble? (To that end, many couples neglect to mention how much debt they have, or that they have a bad credit score before getting married. Later, when they go to buy a house or finance a car, the truth comes out and it leads to trust issues.)

And money is hard to talk about! Couples and therapists say that it’s harder to talk about money than it is to talk about sex! If there is no reason to talk about money, frequently couples avoid it. When personal finances do come up, it’s often not at a good time. When the credit card bill comes and you’re angry that your husband or wife has spent money on something “stupid” or “unnecessary” it’s a bad time to have a calm, constructive conversation about money. A little fight can lead to a divorce lawyer.

Finally, disagreements about money can be misunderstandings. But, because couples don’t want to create trouble, they won’t talk about the problem. If a couple stops going on dates, the wife might think, “My husband doesn’t love me anymore!” (And maybe even “he hates me” and “he wants a divorce!”) However, oblivious to the signs he’s sending, the well-intentioned but frugal husband thinks, “Because we have a mortgage and two kids in college, it would be irresponsible to go out for dinner.” Love isn’t necessarily the issue here – but by ignoring the issue and assuming one understands, a good marriage can become a bad marriage!

What to do? How to stop fighting about money?

As with any marriage problem, talking about it can be a good first step. Although money can be difficult conversation topic, it is tangible. It’s somewhat easier to look at, for example, how you and your husband or wife spend money and what bills you’ve fought about versus trying to come up with examples of how you disagree about more intangible issues like trust and love.

But if you’re going to talk about money – especially without a therapist – it’s important to do it the right way. For starters, do it when you’re calm. Right after opening the credit card bill and fuming about is not a good time!

Do it yourself at home or with a therapist in marriage counseling …

Money Habitudes cards help couples talk about money in a way that’s calm, constructive … and even fun. As a conversation starter, they help couples talk about money. As a self assessment, they help you understand your own money personality and the reasons why you and your husband or wife do what you do with money and why you feel they way you do.

The hands-on card-game format makes the couples activity feel like a game instead of a test. Couples and therapists say it’s especially welcome for guys who – at least stereotypically find it more difficult to talk and share their feelings – because it feels like a familiar social activity and is concrete and nonjudgmental.

Sometimes couples do the activity and in a few minutes and have a major breakthrough. (Couples often say that it’s the best conversation they’ve ever had about money – even couples who have been married for decades!) In some cases, it’s a way to clarify a misunderstanding or help one spouse see the other’s perspective or be understood in a nonjudgmental way. Sometimes it helps couples understand the real issues. That might lead to seeing a therapist for marriage counseling, but at least couples then have a better understanding of what the issue is.

Although the cards are used and trusted by professional therapists (as well as marriage mentors and marriage sponsor couples), they were designed to be easy enough for couples to use – and get results from – on their own.

When therapists use Money Habitudes in marriage counseling (or premarital counseling), they bring years of experience and education to the table. With the Money Habitudes results, they can offer additional, specialized advice and communications strategies beyond those provided by the Money Habitudes cards and guides.

Using Money Habitudes

Doing the Money Habitudes activity takes about 15 minutes, plus time to interpret and talk about results. That can be a few minutes, but many times it provides hours of good conversation and interesting insights. It’s best if both people in a couple have their own deck of cards. Use two decks per couple and dot he activity together, sorting the statement cards at the same time and then moving to the interpretation stage at the time as well.

Impact Award

Money Habitudes received the Smart Marriages Impact Award from the prestigious Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education for its role in helping couples with money issues. When presenting the award, Diane Sollee, MSW, founder and director of CMFCE said, “Money is the number one cause of conflict in marriages—even good, solid marriages. Money Habitudes is a great tool and innovative way to help couples address their money issues. The tool is used by couples on their own, by therapists, social workers and in numerous faith-based marriage programs, such as church marriage retreats. Past recipients of Impact Awards – and good resources for couples – have included:

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