Is Money a Marriage Spoiler?

A young couple in love will adamantly swear that money would never come between them. However, the simple truth remains that one of the major causes of marriage failure is disagreement over money. Furthermore, second and third marriages run even greater risks of foundering over money, particularly when financial disagreements were involved in the breakup of one or both partners' first marriages.

The most common question for couples entering marriage is whether to hold their money and property in common. Should they have a joint checking account, or maintain separate ones? Should they add each other on their credit card accounts, or keep accounts strictly separate? Should they put both partners' names on the titles to vehicles or a house? An attitude of what's mine is yours does help foster oneness, so long as it is mutual. When one partner shares freely and the other does not reciprocate, it can often result in a growing sense of resentment and being taken advantage of. Particularly when there is a disparity in what each partner brings to the table (for instance, if one comes from a wealthier background or has a far more remunerative job), trying to pretend that everything is equal can become an exercise in unspoken score-keeping that sours the relationship. There can be times when being open about the inequities and having formal allowances and separate accounts can actually make the marriage better because it gets rid of the polite pretending and puts the money issues out in the open instead of it becoming the elephant in the middle of the living room.

However, other couples find that formally dividing everything into his and hers leads to turf disputes that eventually tear apart the relationships. No matter how they divide the financial burdens of living -- by simple halving, proportionally to their paychecks, etc. -- they end up bickering about who is using how much of what. Soon suspicion replaces trust as each partner sets forth to monitor the other's usage of common goods. It can be as petty as who ate the rest of the bag of chips in the pantry or who is taking longer showers and thus raising the water and gas bills disproportionately. But the end result is the same -- each one sees the other as getting the better of the bargain and leaving them holding the bag, and starts trying to even up the score, often in petty and vindictive ways.

Money can also become a locus of control over other aspects of the marriage. The partner who makes the larger financial contribution to the operation of the household may presume this gives them a larger voice in family decisions, even those that don't relate directly to money. The other partner may increasingly feel that the relationship is drifting away from that of adult equals and into something closer to that of parent and child, particularly if the money-making spouse is doling out allowances of spending money or continually requiring the non-earning spouse to jump through petty hoops in order to do activities.

Even in couples who have been able to work out equitable ways of dividing household income and expenses in good times, a sudden reduction in income or increase in expenses can be disruptive. When money is short and it becomes increasingly difficult to meet the household's joint financial obligations, tension sets into the relationship. Both partners begin wondering what happened to their prosperity, and it is all too easy to begin picking apart the other spouse's decisions in search of something to blame. Discussions over how to manage to pay all the bills can turn into ugly arguments, especially if one member of the couple feels that the other indulged in foolish expenditures.

One of the most common factors in the problems with money which can end up tearing a marriage apart is differences in attitudes about money. If partners hold different fundamental values about money, but neither of them are aware of those values at a conscious level, arguments will end up going around in perpetual circles because the couple is not really fighting about the apparent subject of the argument. Instead of being about what repair shop to use to fix the car, or whether to replace the old analog TV with a new flat-screen digital TV, etc., the fight is really about things such as the value of savings vs. the value of keeping up with appearances. As a result, each partner can end up feeling that the other has no values, simply because neither can get those underlying attitudes out into the open and freely discuss them.

Although money problems are among the top triggers for divorce, money does not have to be a source of problems in every marriage. If couples can be open about money issues, including the underlying values they hold about money, it becomes possible to work through the problems as they come up. If they both know what a given expenditure means to the other one, both practically and symbolically, it becomes easier to actually talk about the pros and cons of the purchase instead of talking past each other.

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