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It’s Not About the Money

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Chris Conway
Frequently, financial conflicts focus on how each spouse handles money. But most arguments about money really grow out of a failure to understand each other's needs and to respect each other's personalities.

Many of the conflicts I hear in my counseling office are focused on money: “He could get a better job if he would just try,” or “All I ask is that she records the checks she writes — balancing our checkbook is a nightmare!” These are the kind of verbal spears that couples throw at each other when they can’t agree.

Frequently, financial conflicts focus on how each spouse handles money, and blaming each other for not having enough money. Each spouse has logical reasons for his or her opinions, and couples often argue for years about the same issues without resolution. It’s essential to understand that most arguments about money are really not about money. They grow out of a failure to understand each other’s needs and to respect each other’s personalities.

To resolve a fight over money, we must search beneath the surface of the conflict to discover the physical, emotional and spiritual needs that motivate the way we handle money. Behavior motivated by physical need is probably the easiest to understand. Say I’m driving and suddenly become thirsty. I start looking for a store to buy a bottle of water. My wife says, “Why would you buy water when we can get free water at my mom’s house in 30 minutes?” My behavior (buying water) is motivated by thirst (a physical need). On the other hand, my wife’s response is motivated by an emotional or spiritual need, which may be much harder to recognize. Understanding these hidden needs is crucial if we’re going to understand each other.

6 basic needs 

Psychiatrist William Glasser said, “Everything we do — good or bad, effective or ineffective, painful or pleasurable, crazy or sane, sick or well, drunk or sober — is to satisfy powerful forces within ourselves.” This was Glasser’s way of saying that even inappropriate behavior is serving some function. In some distorted way, such behavior is meeting an emotional or spiritual need.

I’m using the words emotional and spiritual to describe those nonphysical needs that so profoundly affect our inner sense of well-being. The closer we come to understanding the internal motivation of our spouse’s behavior, the more likely we are to find a resolution to our differences in the financial arena.

Let me describe six of the inner needs that influence the way we handle money:

The need to love and be loved. People feel good about themselves when helping others. It’s this emotional and spiritual reality that motivates someone to be charitable and altruistic.

The need for security — to provide a safe environment for life. This is what motivates people to lock doors at night and save for a rainy day.

The need for freedom. None of us desires to be controlled by our spouse, so our behavior is often motivated by our desire for freedom. When a husband says, “Don’t tell me what to do!” he’s expressing a feeling that his freedom has been violated.

The need for significance. Within each of us is the desire to do something bigger than ourselves, to accomplish something that will fulfill us. This need often motivates us to give to the poor.

The need for recreation or relaxation. Physically, mentally and emotionally, humans are designed with a need for rhythm of movement between work and play. This is readily observed by the fact that we invest so much time and money in play.

The need for peace with God. This is the need that underlies all others. We want to please God, and this often motivates us to give part of our income in a way that honors Him.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of inner needs, but these are some of the most fundamental. If you and your spouse want to understand each other, you must ask the questions:

  • What motivates my spouse’s behavior?
  • What needs is he or she trying to meet?
  • What motivates my own behavior?
  • What needs am I trying to meet?

Practical implications

Now, let’s make this practical. Focus on a particular financial behavior that irritates you. Perhaps your husband spends too much money attending sporting events. There’s nothing wrong with being irritated if, in your opinion, you cannot afford those expenses. However, when you recognize his need for work-play balance, you are far more likely to help him meet his emotional need in a way that will not break the budget.

Let’s say you’re irritated that your wife wants to give more of your family income to Christian endeavors. In your opinion, you are not at a stage of life where you can afford this. However, if you understand this is motivated by a spiritual need to please God and help others, you are more likely to be understanding and supportive of her desire.

Let me encourage you to focus on one of those points of irritation and ask yourself, What is motivating my spouse to pursue this behavior? What is causing me to be irritated with my spouse’s behavior? You can then focus on discovering how to meet each other’s emotional and spiritual needs in an appropriate manner.

4 personalities

Another factor influencing financial conflict in marriage is what we typically call personality — our patterned way of responding to life. Looking at four common personality types can illustrate the importance of understanding each other’s responses:

The peacemaker. This is the slow, easygoing, well-balanced personality. In a marriage, the peacemaker tends to ignore conflict and avoids arguments. Unfortunately, this leads to unresolved conflict. The peacemaker is typically easy to live with — until he explodes because the internal pressure becomes too much.

The controller. This is the quick, active, practical person. She tends to be self-sufficient, independent and decisive. Finding it easy to make decisions for herself, she often makes decisions for her husband as well. She does not give in to pressure, but will argue until she wins. In money management, she tends to forget that marriage is a team effort.

The caretaker. This is the self-sacrificing person who wants to meet the needs of others. His emotional nature is extremely sensitive. The caretaker finds his greatest meaning in life through personal sacrifice and service to others. The downside to this personality type is that he often gives away more than the budget allows.

The party maker. This is the warm, lively, excited personality. She enjoys people and makes life exciting for everyone. Unfortunately, this personality also finds it hard to record checks and uses the credit card with little thought of tomorrow.

Each of these personality patterns has strengths and weaknesses when it comes to money management. Although none of us fits neatly into one of these four personality patterns, we all tend to identify with one type more than the others. Do I need to mention that a husband and wife seldom have the same personality? And isn’t it strange how those differences are attractive when we’re dating but irritating when we’re married?

A united effort 

Your past efforts to resolve financial conflict have undoubtedly been influenced by your personality. If you’re a peacemaker, you’ve probably tried to overlook the things about your spouse’s money management that irritate you. You’ve attempted to hold your frustration inside. The sad truth is that this tendency ultimately leads to greater emotional distance between you and your spouse. When the distance becomes unbearable, you may lash out in anger. Your spouse may ask, “If you feel so strongly about this, why did you wait so long to tell me?”

Once you understand the weakness of your personality type, you can learn to express your frustrations much earlier. If your spouse understands your personality type, he or she can encourage you to express your feelings and assure you that he or she will receive them positively.

Consider making a list of the six basic needs and the four personality types, then discuss them with your spouse. The next time you experience conflict over money, use the list to help you explore why you did what you did. I think you’ll agree that most of your arguments about money are really not about money after all.

You must work as a team. It’s your money. As equal partners, you learn to handle money in a way that honors God, enhances your marriage and eventually allows you to be generous in helping others. After all, married life is a team effort — even where money is concerned.

Dr. Gary D. Chapman is a pastor and speaker and the author oThe Five Love Languages.

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