The Emerge Stronger Series: Learn About Yourself and Your Spouse to Navigate Money Well

The Emerge Stronger Series: Learn About Yourself and Your Spouse to Navigate Money Well May 4, 2020

This is Part 5 of a series that looks at the research-based solutions to navigating this trying time in our lives and marriages—and emerging stronger. Feel free to share this with those who might benefit!

As we noted last time, one of the greatest needs today (and one of the most important factors for emerging stronger from the pandemic era) is for couples to get on the same page about money. Yet that requires . . . um . . . talking about money. 

Wait, don’t leave! If you, like most of us (77%) find that a bit uncomfortable, you’ll be encouraged to know that the solution is much easier than you think. We identified how to do that in our research for Thriving in Love & Money, and it starts with understanding what is really going on underneath your response to money—and your spouse’s. For some initial tips, let’s continue the list of lessons learned from last time, starting with:

Recapping Lesson 4: Money Friction Often Occurs Because You Aren’t Valuing What Your Partner Values   

I’m sure this will come as a huge surprise, but you are married to someone who is different from you. This causes all sorts of issues—especially when it comes to money. And yet for some reason, we tend not to recognize the ultra-simple root cause: We aren’t valuing or honoring what this alien creature cares about. 

Often, in fact, we think what they value is just wrong. It just seems wrong to maintain that Audible subscription when we’re not having to fill a long commute with audio books . . . or alternately, it just seems heartless to take away something that brings joy during such a difficult time.

The thing is: unless there’s an unusual or systemic problem like a gambling addiction, neither of our values are generally wrong or right—they are just different. Which means we can honor the fact that something matters to our spouse, even if we disagree with it.

What do you care about around money? What matters to your spouse? What specifically are you worried about? It might involve different things, experiences, timeframes, ways of making money decisions, gut-level insecurities. We identified many patterns in how this plays out and I encourage you to identify which applies to the two of you.

Now for the next lesson . . . 

Lesson 5: Empathizing With Your Partner (And Helping Them Do The Same) Naturally Creates Money Communication

So many of the feelings triggered by money are subconscious and hard to articulate. Therefore, it is easier to get frustrated and check out rather than use conflict as a chance to understand each other. The breakthrough comes once you realize, “Wait—that is how I think!” Because then you can explain what you care about to your spouse, and why—and help draw out and honor the “why” in their heart as well. 

As noted, you still may not agree with each other; frankly, you often won’t. But it is astounding how much easier it is to talk about money when you are talking about what is really going on underneath the surface, rather than talking about those specific dollars and cents.

Click to tweet: It is astounding how much easier it is to talk about money when you are talking about what is really going on underneath the surface, rather than talking about those specific dollars and cents.

To make it easier to understand, let me share a simple, common example of a clash of values that may hypothetically occur in our own household: that of saving and planning mattering a lot more to one partner than the other. 

In our case (yeah, okay, it’s not hypothetical) it turned from an opportunity for conflict to an opportunity for conversation and connection—at a very important time.

Jeff and I have often clashed because he is the saver; I’m more of the spender. (Saving and spending are not correlated to gender. It just happens to play out that way for us.) Jeff has been much more motivated to save up for retirement, to put away funds for a rainy day, and so on.

Well, today, it’s not so much raining as monsooning, right? And all the savers out there are feeling TOTALLY vindicated. Furthermore, in our own home, with our income radically disrupted, we have to be able to talk and plan our finances in ways that in previous years would have almost certainly caused serious tension.

But here’s what happened instead:

A few weeks into the pandemic shutdown, Jeff told me he’d been struggling with a bit of resentment about my prior spending. If we hadn’t gone out to eat as many times or hadn’t taken that Disney vacation with the kids last year, we’d have thousands more dollars in our account. Which would really come in handy now that a lot of our sources of income are paused for a while!

But then, Jeff was suddenly able to put words to what mattered to me. He told me that on the heels of his resentment, he quickly realized: All those moments together built our relationship as a family. We created good memories. We got close. And now suddenly, we’ve been stuck at home together—and because of building that connection, we like each other. He said, “I realize that until now I was thinking of much of that spending as only a cost, but now I realize there was a benefit too. And that you saw those times together as an investment.”

Until Jeff and I conducted this research, it would have been very hard for him to articulate that, or for me to articulate my underlying feeling: Of course I want to wisely save money. But God also wants us to have abundant life now, too. And He promises to provide. And what about the biblical story of the guy who stored all his excess up in barns (way more than a reserve fund!) and then never got to enjoy it?  Yes, we need savings, but I also want to build up family experiences and enjoy life now, not just 20 years from now.

Here’s the key: Even though, at the start, Jeff was understanding me more than I was understanding him, and even though he still disagreed with my approach in many ways, it was a breakthrough for us in communication because I felt understood. And that alone led to me being much more willing to talk about how to drastically tighten the belt now, without getting defensive (which would often shut down productive progress) or without him feeling criticized. It also has led me to want to understand and honor more of what matters to him.

So How Can We Know What Those Feelings Are? How Do We Get Started?

As mentioned last time, we strongly recommend that you take the free assessment. It only takes 5 minutes, but it identifies where you are starting in love and money, and how to get where you want to be. 

We also strongly recommend that you do the Love & Money Exchange. Read through the book about yourself, first, especially chapters 3, 4 and 5 about our different values, our different fears, and the different ways we resist being “one team” in marriage. Read it with a pen in hand and highlight and circle those things that perfectly describe how you think. Your spouse should do the same. Then trade and read each other’s comments. This will give you a personalized tour of your partner’s heart and mind around money. It is an incredibly valuable tool to start communication in ways you may never have been able to before.

Before the pandemic era, we may have been able to “get by” without having to talk and connect really well around money. But now that we have to, let’s resolve to use this time well, and come out of it with a closer connection that will serve us well, on an issue that will matter for the rest of our lives. 

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Shaunti Feldhahn is a Harvard-trained social researcher and best-selling author who is sheltering-in-place in Atlanta with her husband and co-author Jeff, two teenagers who are figuring out how to do college and high school online, and two cats who are thrilled to have even more video meetings to walk in front of each day. 

Shameless plug: The Feldhahns’ newest book, Thriving in Love & Money, about how to have a great relationship around money (even in a time of trial), was published right before the National Emergency was declared, and is even more essential now. You can support Shaunti’s research and team during this time by purchasing a copy for someone who needs it.

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