The Real Reason You and Your Partner Disagree about Money

For married couples struggling in their relationship, the differences over money can feel like a constant weight hanging over your head. Money is frequently cited as the primary cause of divorce.

It’s not just a lack of money that causes strain. As one article noted, “The interesting takeaway here is that making more money doesn’t remove financial stress from a marriage. Affluence may alleviate the stress of living paycheck to paycheck, but wealth comes with it’s own money problems.”

In reality, the stress over finances is a symptom of a deeper problem. It’s just that you can’t avoid the realities of money if the bank account runs dry.

One reason that money differences come to a head in a relationship is not the differences themselves, but the underlying need to be right.

In a past life, I worked in what I will describe as a competitive internal corporate environment.

When things went wrong, as they seemed to often do in this department, it became a contest to determine root cause (aka, find out who to blame), and then prove to the VP of the organization what had gone wrong, whose fault it was, and how we were going to ensure that it didn’t happen again.

Usually this resulted in very stringent controls for everyone in the department, and a semi-public butt chewing, dressed up in the form of a department review.

Interactions with peers, and in particular, management level peers of different departments sometimes became a contest to prove who was right, and who was not.

This was not a healthy corporate culture, but it serves to show how we as individuals are taught to associate being right with our value as a person.

If you were not right, you ran the risk of a semi-public shaming. Henceforth it became important to demonstrate how and why you were right.

When we take these thought habits into our marriage or intimate relationships they can have devastating results. The magnitude of the challenge is not seen because we usually see the symptom, rather than the real problem (the need to be right). “It’s not my need to be right that is our problem, it is the difference we have about how to manage our finances.”

As humans, we often have no distinction between our ideas and ourselves. We feel that our value as a person is directly related to the validity of our ideas. If my way of loading the toilet paper on the dispenser, doing the dishes, brushing my teeth, …[fill in the blank] is not right, then I am devalued as a human being.

The same is true for how we believe money should be managed or any other idea we hold.

If you interlock your fingers on both hands and grip tightly you are looking at a representation of how closely we perceive our value as a human being, and our ideas. It is nearly impossible for some people to separate their ideas from their perception of their worth. Yet, you are not your thoughts. You have the ability to change your thoughts, and your value doesn’t diminish by doing so.

As some people have become aware of this thought pattern in their lives, they describe the transition of separating their self-worth from their ides as feeling like they’re being asked to cut off their arm, or not to breathe.

You may not be afflicted with this malady, but it is more common than most of us are aware.

I did have one manager who, after doing a building walk through and finding things he thought were wrong, was shown by building workers why they were in fact, correct. As we walked away from the building, he made the comment to me, “It’s OK for me to be wrong.” That belief was as rare as it was refreshing to hear.

Next time you sit down with your partner to balance the checkbook, pay the bills and look at upcoming expenses if you feel the strain of the discussion causing your stomach to tighten up, ask yourself if part of the reason is not whether your way is the best way, but rather that it feels like you are admitting defeat if it’s not.

This is an indication that the real issue is not how to deal with the finances, but rather that your thought patterns of associating your worth with your ideas is feeling under attack. If you are not right, then you are being devalued. At least that’s what your thoughts are causing you to feel.

One of the biggest problems with this thought pattern is that it can only make your partner feel devalued in the process.

Breaking this lifelong pattern can be difficult, but it is possible. Becoming aware of this pattern is the first step.

To learn if your habits of thinking are helping or hindering you, take this free assessment.

James Stephenson is the author of Small Steps, Big Feat. He coaches couples in overcoming their money differences so they can grow closer together while they grow their wealth.