When divorce lawyers cite "irreconcilable differences" as the cause behind a marital breakdown, what do you suppose those differences were? A few topics probably make the list of "most argued about," including kids, parenting and discipline, in-laws, sex, and – you guessed it – money.
If you want to be a couple whose differences are reconcilable, here are some mistakes to avoid when you talk about money.
Mistake Number One: Ignoring Family Background
We like to imagine that husband and wife come together with a clean slate. Everything old disappears as they enter into their new life together. The fact is, we are all products of how we were raised.
Ignoring your spouse's family background leads to making assumptions that your spouse is just like you. When your spouse acts in ways that don't fit with your way of thinking about money, all your hopeful expectations are dashed. Disappointment and frustration creep in. Arguments ensue.
The Penny Pincher
If your spouse is tight-fisted, stingy, and downright afraid of spending money, chances are good that his or her childhood was plagued by poverty. Growing up poor will often motivate a person to do whatever it takes to avoid that pain again.
If you have a penny-pinching spouse, it may be helpful to start a conversation about the distinction between being wise, cautious, or thrifty and being stingy or cheap.
The Laissez-Faire Spender
Maybe your spouse is one who says, "I like it, therefore I should buy it." In all likelihood, your spouse had a wealthier upbringing and was not expected to work and save to get what s/he wanted.
These lifelong habits of overspending can only be broken by increasing your spouse's knowledge of your specific financial situation. Develop a detailed and specific budget together, so that your spouse can clearly see the income and expenses.
The Emotional Spender
The emotional spender is the one who roams a shopping mall when bored, angry, happy, sad, or lonely and never returns empty-handed. Emotional spenders are frequently from homes of neglect or abuse.
If your spouse is an emotional spender who refuses to acknowledge the problem, you may need to seek professional help. This person likely has an "addictive personality," and as is evidenced with many other addictions, this is a pattern of behavior that won't just go away by talking about it.
Mistake Number Two: Discussing Issues when Emotions are High
The worst time to argue is in the heat of an argument.
If your spouse just used the last $50 of grocery funds to buy an unneeded new shirt, and you're fuming angry with six days left before payday – now is not the time to discuss the issue. When emotions are running high, an argument is all about winning – proving that I'm right and you're wrong. Remove the emotion, and the discussion becomes more about finding a mutually-agreeable solution to a problem.
The best piece of marriage advice I've ever received is to schedule an appointment to sit down and discuss hot-button issues. Planning to work through a disagreement the following day gives both parties some much-needed cooldown time, as well as time to think through what you want to say, helping you remain focused on the matter at hand.
Mistake Number Three: Using the Wrong Words
A classic mistake in marital disagreements – "you never" or "you always." It doesn't matter if you're fighting about money or household chores, using one of those phrases is guaranteed to get your spouse's defenses up. Instead, try using "I" statements, staying specific, and avoiding accusations.
Here are a couple of examples:
Instead of – You always have to spend on yourself! What about me and the kids? Don't you care about our needs?
Try – I feel like you aren't as concerned with the needs of our family as a whole when you choose to buy something you want over something we need.
Instead of – You never let me splurge on myself! I work hard for this money and I deserve to get what I want!
Try – I feel frustrated when I spend so much time working and don't get to buy myself a little treat at the end of the pay period.
Mistake Number Four: Assuming that there's Only One Way
My way is the right way, or at the very least it's the best way. We all think it, even if we don't dare voice it. We get set in our ways of doing things, our patterns of behavior, and a smooth, comfortable routine develops. When someone wants to try a different way, we tend to feel insulted.
Be willing to try things your spouse's way. If s/he wants to go to a cash-only system as s/he saw on that TV reality show, why not try? Sure, it may not work. True, your way may be best. But by trying you lose nothing and gain those coveted marital "bonus points" for being willing. If you refuse to try, you're just seen as a jerk.
Mistake Number Five: Burying Your Head in the Sand
Pretending that all is well when it's not is about as effective as wishing away cancer. Illnesses require treatment, and financial diseases call for a united effort.
Frequently, one spouse will be the financial manager of the family. That spouse is the one who knows every transaction daily; the other often just know the bottom line. While this is a fine way to operate your regular budget, the bottom line spouse cannot afford to skim the details all the time. When financial issues creep up, the most dangerous thing we can do is ignore the problem.
Debt issues, unplanned expenses, unemployment, and other financial problems will happen. It's unfair to expect one partner to bear the emotional load of those hard times alone. That's the kind of thing that leads to irreconcilable differences!
Avoiding these five mistakes cannot guarantee you a happily ever after. It will not assure you of staying on the married side of the statistics. But it will bring you one step closer to your fiftieth anniversary. And couples who can communicate well in one area tend to carry those strong communication skills over into other areas of their marriage as well.