Couples bicker more about money than practically anything else. No surprise, then, that when money is tight, the battles can really heat up. U.S. News asked Olivia Mellan, a psychotherapist and couples communication expert specializing in money issues and stress management in turbulent times, how couples can best weather a financial downturn—or any money-related standoff. Mellan, of Washington, D.C., is the author of Money Harmony: Resolving Money Conflicts in Your Life and Relationships (Walker & Co., $14.95). Edited excerpts:
Why is money such a cause of discord?
Money is tied up with our deepest emotional needs: for power, security, independence, control, and self-worth. But since so many of us are unaware of that emotional load, we fight about it without understanding what the battles are about. Most fights begin with a disagreement about financial strategy: One partner may tend to save and worry while the other might spend extravagantly. Other polar opposites include planners and dreamers, risk takers married to risk avoiders, and money monks—who think money is dirty—married to money amassers, who think he who dies with the most wins. Importantly, different communication styles can lead to hurt, misunderstanding, and chronic conflict. Women feel patronized or lectured at. Men feel criticized, unaccepted.
How can a down economy make matters worse?
One of the most difficult things we face, both alone and as couples, is to have to downsize our goals or put them off. And when money is tight, people become anxious and revert even more strongly to type: Hoarders will save more passionately. Spenders will spend more passionately.
How to ward off a skirmish?
Share with each other your feelings of loss, disappointment, and panic. Discuss what you can do together to modify your goals. That way, even if one partner is the money manager, the other isn't put in the child position.
One system that seems to work is to negotiate agreements in regular, structured money talks. Find a relaxed time to have your weekly or monthly discussion—not when you're tired or distracted by the kids, or when you're paying bills and money is a hot-button issue. Begin by expressing a feeling: "I'm worried about our retirement accounts shrinking so drastically. And when you spent money on the new flat-screen television, it made me very anxious. Can we find another place to cut down, or return the TV until finances are less tight?" It's vital that each person share his or her vulnerabilities about money to level the playing field.
Write down your own short-, mid-, and long-term goals and have your partner do the same. Prioritize them, then talk about how you can merge them or support each other's mission.
Are there fewer clashes when couples keep some of their money separate?
Typically, yes. The issue of merging money is where a lot of the problems start. It's usually the man who wants to merge the money, and the woman who wants separate money. Men will think, "Are you planning to divorce me?" or "You don't trust me." Women will say, "You must want to control me." I firmly believe all women need some separate money. I advise couples to keep some money separate so they can do things they want without having to discuss it.
Any tips on how to keep the conversation cool and calm?
Talk about your feelings rather than focusing on your partner's behavior. Minimize blame. When challenged yourself, be sure to say, "I'm sorry I did that. I'll try to do better next time," instead of lapsing into defensive explanations. Look at the positive qualities of your partner. Hoarders, for instance, might admire a spender's ability to give and enjoy life. Spenders might admire hoarders' ability to set limits, plan, budget priorities. Listen. Observe the no-interruption rule.
What's your favorite assignment for couples?
Play one another for a day. If you worry about her overshopping, go out and buy some new clothes for yourself. By practicing the nonhabitual, you develop muscles you don't use. The goal is to reach more balance, not to become the other person. It is absolutely transformational.