Conventional wisdom has it that the three things spouses argue about most are money, childrearing and division of labor. Disputes about money may erupt with greater force as the feeble economy and its unfortunate consequences – lost investments, home foreclosures, college-age kids left in the lurch – test “for richer or poorer” vows to the max.
But couples who fight about household finances probably would do so even in the best of times due to differing beliefs, says psychotherapist Olivia Mellan, Money Harmony, Washington, D.C.
Mellan, who specializes in money-conflict resolution, says the key to bridging the chasm between each partner’s beliefs is to realize that a spouse’s point of view stems from an emotion deserving of empathy. A communication technique she uses called mirroring varies among marriage counselors, but in all cases, each partner assumes the role of either the speaker or the listener.
The listener says nothing other than a word-for-word playback of what the speaker just said. This prevents the person from thinking up comebacks instead of actively listening. After each grievance is aired and “mirrored back,” the listener then tries to associate an emotion with it.
The process is intended to drill down through each partner’s anger to an emotion that evokes empathy and is therefore likely to quell defensiveness and bring about change.
More informally, couples can set a date each month to reassess the household budget and talk about their respective goals.
“Each couple brings a list of goals, and you see what comes up in common and then harmonize the list,” Mellan says.
Stacy Francis, president, Francis Financial, New York, says she alleviates marital discord with her “yours, mine and ours” banking system.
“When people enter into a marriage and they’re used to being on their own, putting their money into the ‘ours’ bucket and surrendering control can cause a lot of anxiety,” she says.
Francis suggests that couples have a joint account for shared expenses, such as the mortgage, and that each spouse have a separate account in his or her name.
Each month, after contributing to savings, an agreed-upon amount goes into each spouse’s account and the rest goes into the shared account.
Whether the amount is $30 or $300, it should be equal for each account, no matter how much income each partner earns, Francis says.
Each spouse is allowed to spend the money on whatever he or she wants – be it stiletto pumps or a donation to the hedgehog rescue society – without the other’s consent or interference.
“The reason it’s successful,” Francis says, “is that each person retains a sense of independence and can control and spend money without asking permission.”
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