Making Money and Marriage Work
I’m thrilled to be getting married in October – and a little terrified. There are multiple reasons I’ve waited until nearly 50 to take this leap of faith.
I know that happily married people exist, but I can’t find any in my family. More importantly, money stress was a primary reason why so many marriages I’ve witnessed have ended in divorce.
If money stress didn’t cause the divorce, the divorce certainly caused money stress. Four failed marriages are a key reason my father died penniless even after a successful career as an oil company executive.
So my fears are not without cause.
However, Antoinette and I had our first big financial crisis as a couple this week, and I feel hopeful for our future based on how well we navigated it together. We had to make a hard choice with negative consequences regardless of our decision, and it was a significant test of our relationship.
What was encouraging was not the decision but the process we organically co-created for making the decision.
First, we scheduled a time for the conversation when neither was busy nor stressed out. Blindsiding your partner with a huge money problem when they’re exhausted or just home from a busy day at work will never go well.
Next, we had a babysitter come to the house, even though we didn’t go anywhere. Ensuring we were uninterrupted by Antoinette’s very precocious eight-year-old and my soon-to-be stepson was essential.
When the scheduled time arrived, we immediately climbed into bed and snuggled. This was by far the most critical part of the process. We mostly just stared into each other's eyes and tried to connect deeply.
It took about thirty minutes to feel connected and grounded, saving hours of arguing. As I’ve learned from past mistakes, you have to be on the same page emotionally and spiritually with your partner to make healthy financial decisions.
We were ready for the next step when we wished we could silently rest in each other’s arms for a few more hours. (A good nap is one of our guiltiest pleasures as a busy middle-aged couple.)
Then we started creating a list of pros and cons. Once we had our list, with both of us offering every idea without judgment, we took the penultimate step and looked at our budget. The number-crunching was the most straightforward part: It was just math, not emotions.
The math showed us that we would be in trouble either way. It was a question of which set of problems we were more willing to deal with.
A critical skill that Antoinette has taught me to use in these discussions is the “yes, and” technique. Whatever your partner says, constantly affirm their feelings and thoughts by saying “Yes, I hear your concerns.” Follow that up with, “And here is what I think and feel.”
Whatever you do, don’t respond with the word “but.” Saying, “I hear you, but” invalidates what your partner just said and is likely to escalate tensions.
Talking about money, especially with an intimate partner, can be excruciating. Learning to discuss money problems with your partner is a skill you need to master together, as a team, and it takes time, effort, and commitment. It won’t happen overnight, and it took several failed attempts to find a process that works for us.
Also, don’t try to bring up money issues after the wedding and hope for the best. If you can’t have hard money conversations before you get married, you likely have communication or trust issues, and you should think twice before making a lifetime commitment.
While it feels as if we’ve made the right decision, it will take time to know. And sometimes even the right decision can have a negative outcome. Whatever the fallout, we decided together without emotional blackmail, guilt, or recriminations. We will face what comes, united.
While our marriage, like every marriage, will inevitably face challenges, knowing we have a process for dealing with our money struggles in a loving way gives me confidence in our future together.
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