#052: Keeping your finances separate. Is it killing your marriage?

How well do you and your partner handle money as a couple? Are you aware of how it influences your relationship, and how to keep it from ruining your connection?

First, please understand that I am not a financial advisor of any kind. You’ll find no investment advice or monetary suggestions here. Please seek the services of qualified advisors to dispense such advice. Instead, as a therapist, the goal of this episode is to address the relationship angle and impact of combining your finances with your partner’s.

Let’s take a look at the following:

  • how handling money as a couple influences you and your partner
  • how money continues to affect you both over the course of your relationship.
  • what to do when you’re unhappy with your joint financial habits and teamwork

Do The Struggles of This Money-Challenged Couple Seem Familiar?

Consider this fictitious couple (our teaching avatar who’ll serve as a representative hybrid compiled of real stories):

Our couple is in their 40’s, married for more than 15 years. They have 3 school age children. Yet, they are considering divorce, opting for couples therapy as the last resort before the dissolution of marriage papers are signed.

There are loads of emotional baggage on both sides. There is a mountain of resentment between them. They both carry the certainty that they are not being heard.

One partner comes to counseling more interested in the divorce than the other, as they are completely turned off. No feelings for the other partner exists any longer. A result of allowing to many years to pass without resolving their marital issues.

What happened?

Well, in their story of “how we got here,” this couple shares a situation when things finally came to a head:

Some time back, they needed house renovations. They both explain that one partner’s income is double the other’s.

One partner claims the other partner was irresponsible with money. The other partner remembers not paying their full part of the renovation because it would leave them with no money left in their account.

As our avatar couple reveals the logic behind their financial arrangements, I understand more and more that much of their relationship trouble has nothing to do with finances and everything to do with trust and commitment.

The road to their success as a couple is paved..but will they walk it with me?

Trust, according to Dr. John Gottman (one of the leading couples researchers in the world) is the following:

“Trust is the state that occurs when a person knows that his or her partner acts and thinks to maximize that person’s benefits, not just the partner’s own interests and benefits. In other words, this means “my partner has my back and is there for me”.

Gottman’s definition of commitment is as follows:

“Commitment means believing (and acting on the belief) that this relationship with this person is completely one’s lifelong journey, for better or for worse (meaning that if it gets worse we will both work to improve it)”.

Now, basing our understanding of the terms “trust” and “commitment” on these definitions, let’s talk about several key aspects of marital finances.

There are Different Models for Handling Your Finances

There are several common income/account arrangements

  • Joint accounts: some couples keep both incomes in one account, depositing and withdrawing from a single source
  • Separate accounts: some couples have two completely separate accounts. Each partner is thereby responsible for their own funds and operates on their own financially.
  • Combination of separate and joint accounts: partners agree to share a certain portion of their income in a joint account while retaining separate accounts and funds as individuals.

In truth, IT DOESN’T MATTER WHICH MODEL YOU CHOOSE! It’s not about where your money lies in the bank. It is the notion, or mindset, behind your choice that makes the difference.

Different Notions Exist Regarding Marital Finances

How you think and understand money in marriage matters. These two primary and competing financial notions are common: “we are 2 entities” vs. “we are one entity”.

1. If you think “we are two entities” you’ll think in terms of separateness and fairness.

Do you think the one who makes more pays more? If so, then you likely also think that everyone should be responsible for their own money, as if your wife’s money isn’t yours and your money isn’t hers (even the law is not on your side here). If you operate this way, you’ll also notice that you tend to get into arguments about what is fair and equitable. Yet in the end, both of you will accumulate tons of resentment.

2. If you think “we are one entity” you’ll think in terms that consider all money as shared money, belonging to you both.

BOTH OF YOURS Regardless of joint or separate accounts, the money is for both of you. You both have access and shared responsibility. You may say to yourself “we’re making $150K a year,” rather than, “I make $100K and my spouse makes $50K.”

The “we” is key. One entity thinkers use “we” and “our“ statements:

  • WE make
  • WE need to pay
  • Can or should WE do this,
  • OUR money
  • OUR payment, etc.

Couples who have trust and commitment in place, will struggle much less about creating ONE ENTITY. This unity comes first in thought and then in action.

Family of Origin Can Influence Financial Perspectives

Many times we are influenced by the way things were done in our family of origin. Or perhaps we operate under old-fashioned financial notions like

  • “women don’t know how to manage money,”
  • “don’t count on anyone regarding your finances,”
  • “money only causes problems between couples – keep it separate and avoid issues”

Those thought patterns are far from the truth and often distort our views on the partnerships we create with our spouses. Some people come from backgrounds where parents never talked about money, never shared funds, or one parent wielded all the monetary power.

It makes more sense to discuss those mindsets early on before you begin your journey as a couple. However, if you’ve already formed financial behaviors that kill your relationship, recognize how your notions about money are trying to separate you from your partner. They are not a benefit to your marriage.

It’s not too late to make a change! It’s just time to hit “pause” and make some new rules based on a sense of trust and commitment.

Hopefully, this post provided some new ways of thinking about your finances and opens you up to re-discussing money in your family. For more information, please visit my specialty pages about couples therapy and healthier communication or contact me soon for a consultation