Money is a huge issue for couples these days and this should be of no surprise to anyone. It's one of the three most common things couples fight about, and it can only get worse in tough economic times. Dr. Guy Grenier came by to tell us what couples can do to handle the stress of financial worries and move forward.
If money is one of the three most common things that couples fight about - what are the specific money issues that cause problems?
There's SEVERAL - often it's spending habits particularly when someone buys something for himself or herself. I had one couple where the guy decided to spend a lot of money on a tattoo - they were already struggling financially and this was just for him. He'd put the money down and had the outline done so he really had to go ahead and finish it. So doing things for yourself unilaterally causes problems - it's a different thing if it comes out of a personal bank account.
Passive-aggressive stealth shopping causes problems, where someone says, I'm going to go and buy a pair of shoes; or the chair needs to be refinished and the other person agrees only to find the person bought a $700 pair of shoes or had the chair upholstered in the most expensive fabric. They'll say, you said yes I can do it and the other person says, I said yes but we don't usually spend like this. There should be a specific amount that couples agree can be spent - generally.
Another big one is the extended family issue - I've always given money to my mother or my brother who works in a creative field. Sometimes those discussions don't take place before a marriage and can cause real problems down the road.
In the current economic times, when people are losing money in the market, fearing for their retirement savings, worrying if they have set aside enough for their kids education, and even worrying where the next pay cheque might be coming from, stress levels in couples and families can rise significantly. The first step in dealing with this stress to recognize this is where the stress is coming from. So often, we walk around with worries but don't share those concerns with the loved ones and with the ones around us we love. This is a mistake and increases the chances of "fighting about fight," communication misunderstandings about other issues, and feeling isolated and alone even in the company of others.
And when times get hard do we have any idea how much the fighting increases?
A number of things happen - there can be increased fighting. Typically fighting happens when there's a perceived inequity. When we feel we're all in the same boat - equal suffering - there's less fighting and more cooperation - its not just you who can't buy something. But when someone does that unilateral thing - its more incendiary.
Do stress levels go up?
Yes and no. Stress goes up when people tend to catastrophise. I try to teach and remind people that these things are unfortunate, but they're not catastrophic - even losing a job. Things will be difficult but things are not impossible. Things are scary and challenging but we'll develop bravery and strength. If something can't be done then of course stress levels will go through roof.
We don't teach relationship skills and things like sex and finance. We'd be better if couples were taught better communication skills. If a couple has poorly developed relationship and communication skills then money issues are going to make the relationship more toxic.
When a family is struggling with money problems how can the stress show itself?
Psychologically, stress and worry about money can take many forms. The more familiar with what worry about money might look like, the better prepared we are to deal with it ourselves and support our partner and other family members. For example, money worry can look like:
Grief for those who have lost jobs and financial stability (this can be dangerous as it can turn into apathy and hopelessness)
Fear for those who are experiencing the financial uncertainty to a degree that has not been felt in a many years,
Confusion concerning what the correct course of action
Anger that after years of planning, things are changing
You shouldn't protect the kids when a family is going through difficult economic times.
Another common mistake is "protecting the children" from a family's money concerns. Money is and will be an issue in everyone's life and teaching our children (at age appropriate levels) that money can be a stress and yet those stresses can still be worked out within a family is a very important and necessary lesson for us to give our children.
But why should they have to be burdened about such an adult subject?
Life is hard - get a helmet. Better to offer kids a version of the world in small measured doses. We need to talk about difficult or scary things but we're going to do them in a controlled way. Money is something that everyone will have to deal with. How you talk about it depend on the child's age. With a five-year-old you might say, "money is tight right now and we can't do all the things we'd like to do." It's better they get the message then constantly be asking for things.
With a young teen you could say, "Look, I had all these financial plans I put money away for education and retirement, the market is down, I'll probably find the answer but you should know this right now, I would be doing you a disservice by not telling you."
We will make more progress if we're frank and candid and problem solve through difficult issues rather then pretend that the problems aren't there - we're showing kids problem solving strategies.
Is there anything positive for a relationship that comes out of hard economic times?
It acts as a reminder that catastrophizing isn't the way to go - giving up a house, having to find a new job these are certainly stressors.
It's hard that there is not a choice - but it's not bizarre - aliens haven't arrived - it's part of a cycle. People can feel forgiven that this hasn't happened in their lifetime and they're but we can comfort from history.
What can couples do to handle the stress?
Very often we forget that our relationships should be about connection, not production. Over the last 20 years we've seen dual career families with kids in six different lessons. We've forgotten things like sitting around having game night or sitting and talking around dinner table. The purpose of family is connection - to feel love and support one another and to fee that someone has got your back.
Perhaps strangely, there is a silver lining quality to at least one aspect of the current financial crisis and economic uncertainty that we are currently experiencing. With worries about money mounting, there is an opportunity to "hit the relationship reset button" and be reminded that love, support, and family are really the qualities of existence that bring us the greatest joy. Many couples benefit from being reminded that love, relationship and family are best understood as opportunities for "connection not production." This message is often easily lost with dual career families, the perceived necessity to "keep up with the Jones," the constant message to consume, and the mistaken impression that "things" will make us truly happy.
Start recognizing. What are we doing where we prioritized production over connection? Do we need 3 video game systems - spending money on forms of entertainment for each person - 3 people listening to their own iPods?
It's not the "things" that are going to make us happy, it's the relationships that are going to make us happy. We're not inventing these coping mechanisms; we're being reminded of them.
Visit Dr. Guy Grenier online at: