Married couples can sometimes have different views on money. Those opposing opinions can cause fights, arguments and in some cases, divorce.
My guest today has had a lot of experience helping couples to deal with this very issue. Dr. Laura Dabney is a certified psychiatrist based in Virginia who prides herself in helping her patients change their lives for the better. Her writing and advice have been featured in major media outlets like NBC, Bustle and Yahoo Lifestyle, as well as many other popular radio shows.
One of Dr. Dabney’s core focus areas is with marriage and relationship guidance … and we married folks could all use a little bit of that, am I right?
Andy Hill: Why is money such a hot topic when it comes to marriage?
Dr. Laura Dabney: People come to me always talking about “doing things”. Complaining about a spouse or somebody else who is “doing something”. But we don't often talk about the feeling behind money. There are a lot of books on how we should spend money, what to do with money and how to invest money. But no one talks about the feeling behind money and that's where people get tripped up.
What are some of the core conflicts when it comes to money and marriage?
Well, there's several, but the top ones tend to be living a separate life, having separate accounts, and therefore not acting as a team.
So people just go into their marriage or into their lives and it's, “I have my account and you have your account.” And the two will never meet. So that's one big problem I see where they're not acting like a team.
Or there's a disagreement on the lifestyle. Again, they haven't talked about what lifestyle they expect. So one starts living one lifestyle or expects one lifestyle, the other one expects something else. So, therefore, they're not compromising.
Financial unfaithfulness … I don't know if you've heard of that term, but spending or saving secretly and the other one finds out and of course, that erodes trust and that's a problem.
Related Article: 3 Smart Alternatives to Merging Money in Marriage
How does our childhood play into our relationship with money?
Yeah, that's huge. I have to start saying people get upset with me like, “You're blaming the parents.” but it's not about blaming the parents. It's about looking at the foundation. Where did this problem come from?
You can't solve a problem unless you know where it comes from. That's where I'm coming from when I talk about the parent's attitude towards money.
For instance, if kids see parents fighting about money a lot or even feeling that stress in the household a lot, kids typically and understandably can't label parents as having a problem with money. Because they depend on their parents for survival, literally.
So it's too overwhelming to say, “Oh my parents have a problem.” So they'll label something else as the problem like money. They'll go into their adulthood thinking money is a problem. Or talking about money is going to cause a problem. Not realizing their parents didn't handle the talk about money well.
How do we remedy that situation?
That's my whole job in a nutshell right there.
I have the wonderful and enjoyable task of introducing people to their feelings, this whole other side of themselves. It's with money, it's with discipline … that's another one where this comes up a lot. Where they're so focused when they come in to see me on “action” and “doing” that I have to stop and say, “What's the feeling you had when your husband dumped X amount of money on a boat and didn't tell you?” And they can't do it.
They actually cannot come up with that word. And I've had times where I had to give them words.
Angry? Happy? Joyful? Sad? And then they have to pick one.
So I always start any kind of marriage and money problems with getting them to understand the feeling behind it and then being able to be comfortable with the feelings behind it. What's the history of that feeling behind it, back to the parent thing and the patterns in their lives, and then they're able to talk about it.
They're able to say, “Okay, I was angry that you spent the money on the boat. What's going on? We need to talk.”
“Oh, okay well when you talk about it, I didn't realize that would bother you.”
It's an unknown world for a lot of people. They have the intellectual side, but you have a feeling side. And those two, if you can't go back and forth between those easily, you're going to have a problem.
What actions can we take to avoid the boat situation from happening in the first place?
There are people who want to take action and there are people who want to hide. And those two people tend to find each other a lot interestingly.
Because they're typically so afraid of bringing up the feeling to the spouse they've labeled that as the problem. Thinking that talking about money is bad, or is going to drive somebody away. Talking about my anger, often how that is going to drive somebody away when that's not the case at all. It's going to make things better.
I typically have people write or talk to somebody else about it. Sometimes it's easier for people to talk about their feelings or thoughts on something that are scary with somebody else or in writing or in private so they can practice and get comfortable with it themselves, and then approach it.
And that's where I come in a lot of times, too. Sometimes people are aware of their feelings and aren't afraid to admit it to themselves. That always comes down to if they're afraid in their own heads to sit with it. But if they can get to that step, then sometimes they're afraid to communicate it. So sometimes they somehow feel more comfortable having a third party, a neutral party in the room to talk about it. So just finding a way to get comfortable with it in your head is the first step.
Related Article: 10 Easy Ideas to Make Your Next Budget Session Fun
Why are money conversations so taboo in our society anyway?
Let me tell you. I'm old enough to remember. I was an economics and psychology double major in school. And way back when the stock market and all of that was even first introduced, on Wall Street and everywhere, finances did not involve emotions.
They actually believed – and I remember this – it's all spreadsheets and numbers. There are no emotions involved. So it's not only a family dynamic that contributes to this. We have a history in our own lives.
And only in the past 25 years has this become a hot topic of psychology, of course, in finance. So I think there's a long history of trying to believe– wishing, maybe, hoping, that we could just look at the numbers and look at the spreadsheets and make a logical decision. But that doesn't happen.
How can couples resolve a major disagreement on a purchase (like a boat, car, trip, etc)?
Well, you have to remember that the emotions behind it– that's got to be brought up. A lot of couples try to change the other person or try to get the other person to admit they're right or wrong. And that's where it goes off course.
So if you can say to whoever– let's say the person bought a boat, and then said, “Hey, honey. I bought a boat.” That honey has to be able to say, “Listen, when you make a big purchase like that, I get super scared.”
The template I give people is, “I feel X when you do Y.” I get really anxious – I get really whatever the feeling word is – when you do Y, when you buy a boat, or when you make a big purchase without me. That makes it so much easier for the other person to understand or to relate to.
The big mistake people make is say, “You shouldn't buy a boat. That's stupid to buy a boat. You're crazy to–” They start attacking the person. And of course, that person's not going to have any buy in if they're being attacked. They just get defensive.
They start trying to prove that they're right and, “Well, you never want to do anything impulsive. You're too safe. You're no fun.” They start attacking each other. So if you can get comfortable with the feeling and say, “I really get anxious when you make a big purchase,” that person's going to want to soothe your pain. The person's not going to want to not buy a boat because you declared it's wrong because there's nothing wrong with it. But they're going to want to help you if you talk about your pain if they love you. That's going to get you more buy-in.
And then if you're on the receiving end of that, you have to be respectful of and appreciate the fact that they're telling you a pain. And then don't get into either the action or passive mode, but to say, “I didn't know that.” Then start talking about, “My feeling is, if I have to tell you about buying a boat, I feel like I'm being controlled and that makes me angry.”
So they have to do the same thing. “I feel like I'm getting permission or feel like a kid. I feel like you're demeaning– it's demeaning to me when I have to tell you something in advance.” So ideally, both feelings should stay on the table. Then together, you look at it.
“Okay. You get angry because it feels demeaning.”
“You get anxious because you feel like you've lost control. What are we going to do? How are we going to put these two things together? How are we going to compromise these two things?”
With all the demands of young parenthood, how can couples make time for these important conversations?
You talk a lot about marriage being an investment. Well, if you're afraid of your emotions, you're afraid of these topics coming up, totally unconsciously, young parents will find something to get in the way, “Oh. I'm so busy. I've got this kid. I've got this thing. They've got gymnastics. They've got the piano lesson.” They do that as a way to avoid having these discussions.
Just like anything else, I recommend you have to put a time on the calendar for just you two to have that talk. And these talks tend to come when you're out. When someone else is attending to you and someone else is waiting on you. Dinners are perfect for this. So there's no distraction.
You won't let something distract you because these are all difficult topics and there's a lot of emotions involved and it's natural we want to avoid that. But the couples who do best with this are the ones who actually have– it's not just date night, but it's actually on their calendar and they move mountains to keep that on their calendar, to keep that investment top of mind.
Related Podcast: Why Date Night is So Important in Marriage
Do you think it's important to have a scheduled monthly or weekly get-together on the calendar?
This is a truism in psychology. Ready? All emotions need to be aired out to dissipate, to go away. It doesn't necessarily have to be with that person but they have to be brought up to the conscious and aired out otherwise, they sit around like a big boulder that you're carrying around forever. And they seep out in really bad ways or blow up.
That's why Vietnam vets come in here like, “Why am I still carrying this around? Why am I still upset about this?” It's because you never grieved it. You didn't have a chance to. You guys were just trying to save your life over there in Vietnam. And then society told you that you were awful when you came back, so you couldn't say anything. You've buried it all. It doesn't go away.
So these date nights, or whatever you want to call them, on the calendar is a way for any emotion that's been sitting down there to come up. It's a safe, quiet, undisturbed time for something to come up that needs to come up.
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