Dear Dr. Chani,
I am struggling with a long-standing issue in my marriage. For the most part, my husband is wonderful and we have a great relationship. We enjoy spending time together and have mutual interests. I consider us to be pretty good partners when it comes to parenting our five children. But a significant tension mounts between us around this time of year, when the sales hit the stores and the marketing world beckons us to a shopping frenzy. No matter how hard I try, I cannot get my husband to limit his spending. I see our credit card bills climbing higher and higher throughout the month because of his expenditures. I am afraid that after a few months like this, we will have to take money from savings to pay the bill.
I often discuss my concerns with my husband. When I do, he tells me not to worry. He explains how everything he bought was a great deal and not too expensive. He adds that most of what he buys is not even for himself. The truth is, a lot of what he buys is for me and the kids. He buys me gorgeous costume jewelry and the latest technological gadgets. He recently bought cute warm boots for our young girls and new watches for our older boys.
This issue of my husband’s spending has been a source of background stress for most of our twelve year marriage. When we were a newlywed couple, my husband used to buy beautiful flowers for me for Shabbos every week. I eventually convinced him that it was not necessary and we could save the money for more important things. As our family grew, Baruch Hashem, and our expenses have grown along with it, the calculations of how much money we earn vs. how much we spend are keeping me up at night. My parents always taught me the value of saving money for a rainy day. I would like to be able to save up money for major expenses like a bigger house, our children’s future tuitions, and our retirement. I know these things are not as glitzy and fun, but we will eventually need the money to afford them and, if my husband spends money like it grows on trees, we will not have it.
How can I convince my husband to curb his spending across the board? I don’t want it to be a constant discussion and a source of tension. I don’t even want to have to micromanage all of his purchases and keep scanning the credit card bill! Please help!
Stressed About Money
Dear Stressed About Money,
You are concerned about being able to afford major future expenses for your family. This is a common dilemma that many families face, especially in the Jewish world. You are very determined to manage your spending so that you can budget to meet those long-term goals. Unfortunately, you struggle with disappointment and frustration when your husband buys gifts for you and your family, since you view his purchases as unnecessary and you worry about how it impacts your ability to save for the future.
The tension that you and your husband feel about the different ways you want to use money is an example of a “perpetual conflict” that couples experience. What is a perpetual conflict? What are perpetual conflicts usually about? Why do couples sometimes find it difficult to resolve these kinds of disagreements?
Dr. John Mordecai Gottman, a preeminent couples researcher who has empirically studied couples behavior for over forty year, coined the term “perpetual conflict.” He explains that 69% of the conflicts that couples encounter in their first year together will repeat themselves throughout their relationship. These kinds of conflicts or disagreements arise from fundamental differences between two partners. Both partners may have their own valid approaches and opinions. There is not necessarily one partner in a perpetual conflict who is right and one who is wrong.
A couple usually encounters a perpetual conflict because of key differences in their personalities, values, and needs. Since these conflicts emanate from core personal differences between partners, they are difficult to resolve. It is usually futile to try to convince your partner of the validity of your approach using logical reasoning. Chances are, you are both going to remain steadfast in your positions and convinced that you are right.
Rather, your goal in a perpetual conflict is to have a series of conversations to uncover what lies beneath each of your positions in the conflict. As you each gain a deeper understanding of why you both feel the way you do, you will find it easier to tolerate your partner’s approach. You might even appreciate it.
In your financial situation, you have felt tension about a perpetual conflict related to money for over a decade of your marriage. You have not been able to logically convince your husband to stop his spending. Although you succeeded in convincing your husband to stop buying you flowers for Shabbos, it has been difficult to influence your husband to change his overall behavior by discussing facts and rational explanations.
I encourage you to explore the meaning behind your husband’s approach to money. Try to understand your husband’s feelings about what money means to him. Having conversations about your values regarding money will reduce the tension you feel, and help you anticipate and understand your husband’s financial choices. Don’t aim to superimpose your approach to money upon your husband. You might even discover significant advantages to his approach to money that benefit you and your family.
Start your conversation by sharing your own feelings about money. Think about the following questions before your conversation. Contemplate your answers to these questions and then share them with your husband when you are ready to talk about them.
What does money mean to you?
Where did you get your beliefs about money?
How do those beliefs affect your decisions and your behavior?
What are you most likely to spend money on and why?
How do you feel when you spend or save money?
After you share your own feelings about what money means to you, ask your husband these questions. Welcome him to either answer during your conversation, or to have time to think about them like you did. Listen calmly and non-judgmentally to what he shares. Remember, you goal is not to debate him or to challenge his opinions. Your job is to be curious and discover more about his unique perspective in order to understand him.
When couples in my office discuss their differences about what money means to them, a certain dynamic emerges from their conversations. Interestingly, partners often have complementary approaches to money. When it comes to money, it seems that opposites can attract. One partner values saving money and spending frugally as a way of creating stability and security. The other partner values spending money, specifically in a way that demonstrates love and builds connection with loved ones.
Sometimes the partner who values saving money views the spending partner as lax and irresponsible about money. This critical attitude often softens when the two partners share their feelings about what money means to them. It reveals a whole new way of looking at the meaning behind their partner’s spending.
A discussion about what money means to each member of a couple can have an extraordinary emotional impact on the couple. I was reminded of this in a story that I witnessed in my office:
I met with a couple who were dating and were very happy together, yet they struggled with some significant disagreements. One issue was that the woman complained about her partner’s excessive spending. She pointed out that at the end of a recent date, her partner did not even have enough cash in his pocket for a bus ride home, so he had to borrow money from her. The man was unapologetic.
During the meeting, he explained that an hour before the date was over, she had mentioned that she was craving a chocolate bar. He had reached into his pocket and spent the last bit of cash to buy her the chocolate bar. This was his way of expressing love for her. If he had to do it all over again, he would buy her the chocolate bar again. When the woman listened to his explanation and she realized what spending money meant to her partner, she began to look at his approach to money very differently. Even though she still valued saving money, she was able to understand what money meant to him and appreciate the love behind why he spent it so easily.
The most important take-away message from this story is the impact that listening to what money means to your partner can have on your relationship. Deepening your conversations to go beneath your positions about spending money can help you gain insight into your husband’s choices. Just like the woman in this case, you might experience a mental shift in your way of looking at your husband’s spending. Hopefully, as you express understanding for your husband’s approach, he will, likewise, become more understanding of your approach, and become more open to accepting your influence about saving money for your future.
Wishing you much hatzlacha,
PRO TIP: Try this technique out with your friend or loved one! Plan a calm and relaxed time when you can have a deep discussion about what your positions in a perpetual conflict mean to you. Discover a new insight into your partner’s approach!
Share Your Story: What is a perpetual conflict you find common in relationships? Share your experience in the comments below.
About the Author
Dr. Chani Maybruch is a social psychologist and relationship coach, specializing in teaching emotional connection and communication skills for over two decades. She coaches individuals and couples, teaches courses on how to become a master of relationships, and blogs at chanimaybruch.com. To find out more about how to gain self-awareness and get dating clarity, register for her FREE E-course “Get Dating Clarity” and her upcoming online course: “Master Dating: How to Create Your Ideal Relationship.”