We all know money is one of the most trying issues in marriage, even during normal times. And when times aren’t normal (Hello, 2020!), the thought of working through money issues with your spouse can seem more excruciating than ever. But does it have to be?

My husband Jeff and I just finished an extensive research project and a book, Thriving in Love & Money, on how to have a great relationship around money. It came out one week before the country shut down due to COVID-19. For an author, normally that timing would be devastating – but we fully believe that God chose this time. He knew millions of couples would be facing an unprecedented time in history, stuck at home, worrying about money – and needing to be able to come together around this topic in a very real way.

Here are some quick lessons from our research that will help you thrive in love and money – now that doing so is needed more than ever:

Lesson 1: The key to a great relationship around money is to talk about money.

Many of you just winced, right? Our nationally-representative survey revealed that 77% of us find it difficult to talk about money without awkwardness, defensiveness, irritation . . . pick your emotion!

So, we just tend to avoid those conversations where we can.

That’s where Jeff and I were too. Even after improving our marriage immensely through sixteen years of research, money was the one big area we were not on the same page.

But the last three years of this project have been transformational. Through both our research and personal experience, we now know that learning to talk about money is not only possible – it is easier than you ever thought, and can dramatically increase your connection as a couple.

Lesson 2: The key to talking about money is understanding how it makes you feel.

Here’s the big principle we discovered: When we have tension around money, it’s not about the money. It’s about how money makes us feel.

It’s about a host of worries, expectations, and beliefs running under the surface. And often, we don’t realize those feelings are there, much less know how to articulate and share them with our partner!

I used to get frustrated when, after a long day of meetings, I would call Jeff and offer to get Chinese takeout on the way home. He would typically respond with something like, “Well, that’ll be $35, and I’ve got some chicken in the fridge. How about I just grill that, okay?”

Why did that bug me?! And why did it bug Jeff that I would ask that sort of question regularly?

It wasn’t until going through this process that we figured it out. For me, getting takeout equaled more family time. Subconsciously, I was saying, “If we grill the chicken, there will be prep, cooking, and clean-up and then we’re going to have to start homework . . . so $35 to buy a precious hour of family time? You bet!”

Finally, pinpointing the source of my emotions in this recurring conflict allowed me to help Jeff understand that I wasn’t just carelessly spending money; I was carefully “purchasing” valuable time with him and also our teenagers.

Lesson 3: Reduce money friction by understanding what your partner values.

For Jeff, the conflict about money wasn’t about the money either. And, as in our case, one crucial factor to reducing day-to-day money friction is to understand the values underneath what your partner is trying to do with money.

Once we got into the research, Jeff was eventually able to articulate his feelings about our recurring “take-out dinner” clashes as well. As someone who always looks for ways our family can save money and be more secure financially, Jeff was thinking, “If we keep making these choices to spend money whenever we want to, we’re going to be homeless in retirement!” His offer to grill that chicken was a gentle way of avoiding what he saw as a slow road to a dire financial circumstance.

Unless there is an abnormal challenge, such as a spouse with a gambling addiction (in which case, seek out counseling right away), most of the time neither spouse is objectively right or wrong; we are just valuing different things. It will drastically reduce money tension to recognize that in most cases both of us are seeking what is best for our family. We don’t have to agree with our spouse, but we do have to recognize that their desires are usually just as legitimate as ours.

Lesson 4: Empathizing with your partner (and helping them do the same) naturally creates money communication.

As you can probably guess, Jeff and I have often clashed because he is more motivated to save for retirement or a rainy day (rainy pandemic year?!), while I, still wanting to be wise, tend to prefer using money to do things to enjoy life now.

A few weeks into the pandemic shutdown, Jeff told me he’d been struggling with resentment over my prior spending. Many of our income sources had suddenly shut down, and he was thinking, If we hadn’t eaten out as many times or taken that Disney vacation with the kids last year, we’d have thousands more dollars in our account. But as he thought it through, he also realized: all those moments together built our relationship as a family. Suddenly we were stuck at home together – and we liked each other!

He said, “I realized I was viewing that spending as only a cost, but now I understand there was a benefit too; you saw those times together as an investment.”

And guess what those words did? They made me feel understood and valued. And that led to a breakthrough in communication. Because I felt Jeff really understood me, I was much more willing to talk about how to drastically tighten the belt during this time without getting defensive or making him feel criticized. It also motivated me to want to understand and honor more of what matters to him.

This unprecedented time doesn’t have to lead to friction around money in our marriage. In fact, it can bring our marriages closer than ever — if we take the time to acknowledge our feelings about money and commit to learn the same about our spouse.

Shaunti Feldhahn
Shaunti Feldhahn

Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn are best-selling authors, popular speakers, groundbreaking social researchers, and hold Harvard graduate degrees. Their books, including For Women Only, For Men Only, The Kindness Challenge and Thriving in Love and Money have sold more than 3 million copies in 25 languages and have transformed relationships around the world.

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