Money and Marriage — How to Thrive in Love and Money

By Jeff and Shaunti Feldhahn
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Money and marriage: A couple review finances on a laptop computer
© vladimircaribb/Adobe Stock
Money and marriage. A recipe for disaster or a chance at growth? Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn share ways for couples to succeed financially and relationally.

We all tend to get sideways with each other about money. In fact, because we hear money is the leading cause of divorce, we tend to believe money is the most serious issue in marriage. But the truth is more nuanced.

Yes, money can be a real cause of strife, but it can also be an opportunity for connection. And it’s not because money is more important than any other issue. It’s not that money disagreements are more intense, or last the longest or are the most vocal — it’s because money is everywhere.

The first of two reasons why money is so pivotal in marriage is because we interact with money in some way, somehow, every day.

Right now, you are interacting with money. You are probably using electric lights, maybe sitting on a chair in a house or apartment. All of these things were paid for. Within a few hours, you’ll eat or drink something. You’ll send a text or post something about this amazing article (had to sneak that in) via a mobile device you paid for, using a connection you pay for. At every step, you are — subconsciously or consciously — evaluating whether various things are “worth it.” Whether it’s better to save this than spend that.

This chair has gotten uncomfortable — it might be time to get a better one.

I’m cold; I should turn up the heat, but gas is expensive.

This connection is slow, but if I get that better data plan, we may not have enough money at the end of the month.

That constant interaction leads to the second reason money is so pivotal in marriage: Since we can’t get away from money, we can’t get away from how money makes us feel.

And if we’re living with another human, we can’t get away from how money makes them feel. We can’t escape the need to process it, think about it and talk about it with someone who probably has a very different perspective at times.

In a 2007 study by my friend Dr. Scott Stanley at the University of Denver, he and his coauthor Lindsey Einhorn capture this reality. “Money has symbolic potential unlike almost everything else … Money is unique in that no day goes by for any adult when money is not used, thought of, spent, saved or worried about.”

When someone in a focus group brought up the idea that money was the primary reason for divorce, a divorced man shook his head. “No. People don’t get divorced over money. They get divorced over what money brings out in them.”

Thankfully, although we all share a common problem, we can also find some simple ways to prevent money from pulling us apart — and ensure it brings us together instead.

The key factors

Over the years, our research has focused on digging out what we call the “high-leverage” factors in relationships: little things that make a big difference. We look for those areas where a few changes or “aha” moments can create significant improvement.

If Thriving in Love and Money were just a book about prospering in money, quite a few technical financial actions would be high leverage:

  • Learning how to develop a budget and live within it so that a couple builds margin.
  • Avoiding consumer debt and getting out of debt, if possible.
  • Having emergency savings, basic insurance coverage and diversification in investments.
  • Tithing and giving, so a couple lives from a mindset of gratitude and is reminded that all they have isn’t theirs anyway.

All these technical financial actions are important. But there are already many helpful resources out there (we link to some on www.thriveinloveandmoney.com), and we won’t reinvent those wheels.

The issue is this: We can do all of those technical things and still have confusion, frustration, tension or stress in our relationship.

Here’s the key: If you aren’t thriving in the “love” part of love and money, it will be difficult to come together enough to do the “money” part well. It is difficult to create a stable financial foundation without coming together in the relationship. Clearly, this works in reverse too: Money troubles can create a relational strain. But as anyone who has survived bankruptcy or financial heartache can attest, if you are close in your relationship, you can get through anything financially.

What a lack of thriving looks like

Many of us believe that most couples “fight” about money. But the truth is sneakier and something every couple needs to evaluate.

Across all our surveys, we learned that only about half of us ever “fight” about money. But that doesn’t mean everyone else is happily skipping to and from weekly budgeting sessions. For more than nine in 10 couples, there are other dynamics that get in the way — and some are even more dangerous to the relationship than raised voices and intense disagreements.

For example, in our Dynata survey, our largest survey of 1,030 respondents, of those who never fight, 85 percent still experience tensions in the relationship due to money! Overall (including those who fight), 92 percent of couples experienced those money tensions in some way. Our other surveys found similar — or even slightly larger — numbers. Note that due to its specialized nature, we use our independent survey of young-married, young-family churchgoers — which we will call the young families survey — as the primary source for analysis of these tensions.

Money is indeed one of the primary causes of tension and stress in relationships, according to multiple surveys, including in-depth research conducted by Dr. Sonya Britt at Kansas State. (In our review of the research, we do not see a definitive answer that money is the leading cause of divorce; other factors appear to be just as or more important to that outcome.)

So, when money causes relational stress — what does that look like? And what helps solve that stress? The answers below are based in large part on extensive statistical wizardry done by Chuck Cowan to answer those exact questions.

Love and money points of tension

We have identified 26 distinct negative dynamics that occur among couples because of money — and statistically, all of them are important. Why? Because if you have one, you’ll probably have more.

That said, not all money tensions are created equal.

The list below, from the young families survey, is sorted by which love and money tensions appear to be the most dangerous because they are the most predictive of having others. (In case any of you are statistics nerds like me [Shaunti], you can see the details at shaunti.com/research.)

As you’ll see here, money-related resentment and anger top the list. Only 44 percent of couples experienced this type of resentment in their marriage. But it is the most dangerous of the tensions: Those who had resentment were far more likely to experience many of the other problems than those who simply expressed anxiety or worry over money. (Worry was much more common but less dangerous to the relationship.)

Note that actual fighting (raised voices and so on) doesn’t make the top five! Resentment, blame/embarrassment, resignation, frustration/irritation and exhaustion appear to be more dangerous than fighting.

Take a few minutes now and ask yourself: Which dynamics do you experience in your relationship? And are they rare, or do they occur often?

We all have some of them. (Well, 92 percent of us admit we do. I think the 8 percent who say they don’t fall into the “liar, liar, pants on fire” cohort.) Just as important: Where are your tensions on the list? All the tensions are important, but the further up the list, the more seriously you need to take them.

  1. Resentment/anger. “Why do I have to be on a budget when we have plenty of money?” “Why won’t he/she realize how tight things are?”
  2. Blaming the other person or feeling shame or embarrassment yourself. “They/I shouldn’t have bought it.”
  3. Resignation. “Fine, have it your way. I give up.”
  4. Frustration/irritation/annoyance. “Why don’t you see things the way I see things?”
  5. Exhaustion. “How many times do we have to have the same conversation?”
  6. Actual fighting/significant arguing/raised voices or sharp tones.
  7. Pride. One person doesn’t want to admit they were wrong.
  8. Martyrdom. “I’ll sacrifice, even if you won’t — or because you won’t.”
  9. Feeling defensive. “I’m not wrong.” “I shouldn’t have to explain myself.” “You’re not my mom.”
  10. Superiority/derision or feeling judged/condescended to. “You don’t live in the real world.” “I know how to handle money better.” “I’m not wasteful like you.” “[eye roll] Everything isn’t a crisis. We don’t really need this right now.”
  11. Checking out/ignorance about the situation. “I honestly don’t care.” “Do what you want to do.”
  12. Not on the same page/disagree/two different sets of goals or values. Example: One spouse thinks “it’s just right to save and be strict,” the other thinks “it’s just right to have the flexibility to buy lots of small purchases as we need them.”
  13. Entrenchment. Digging in. Escalation. Repetition of the message. “Fine, if you’re digging in your heels, I’ll dig in my heels too.”
  14. Disappointment/discontentment. One person had an expectation that wasn’t met. For example, “You should just know that I needed that.” “You should just know that we can’t spend that way.” “I don’t like asking for more money; you should know I need more.”
  15. Hiding receipts or purchases. Someone doesn’t want to feel judged or wants to avoid fights.
  16. Retaliatory spending. “You went out for dinner, so I get lunch out.” “You hurt me — so I buy something.”
  17. Misalignment/lack of clarity on goals. Stating, “We can’t afford it,” when actually it is, “We may have the money, but we don’t have a line item.”
  18. Mismatch of impulsive tendency versus planning tendency. “I want to grab that.” “But we didn’t plan for that.” The impulsive person might think, You’re no fun. The planner thinks, Well, I have mastery of my impulses!
  19. Not talking about money/avoidance.
  20. Not feeling cared for. “You’re not aware of me/not attentive.” “I don’t feel prioritized.”
  21. Doing money separately/excluding yourself/excluding one party.
  22. Anxiety/stress/weight/worry.
  23. Fear about losing control.
  24. Unpaid bills. Because you weren’t communicating/were avoiding.
  25. Silent treatment/withdrawal.
  26. Ignoring agreements/decisions. For example, continuing to go out for lunch every day, even after promising to take a lunch instead.

The high-leverage solutions

So, if those are the tensions that keep us from thriving in love and money, what are the big-picture solutions? Over the course of this three-year project, our research and analysis found that three intertwined actions will ensure those tensions don’t occur as often and will help get us to that marital financial happiness we’re looking for.

We need to:

  • Build cushion for discretionary purchases.
  • Be able to talk about money.
  • Understand what is underneath how we and our spouse respond to money.

The big issue … is this: That final action (understanding what is underneath how we and our spouse respond to money) is necessary for you to do the first two well. 

© 2020 Veritas Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved. Adapted from Thriving in Love and Money by Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn. Used by permission of Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Originally published on FocusOnTheFamily.com.

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