Financial Friction in Marriage

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Dear Jon and Diane,

Thanks for your questions, and I hope I might be in some position to help. When it comes to help for married couples in dealing with their “issues,” there are generally three areas where most of the action or conflict occurs. Most marriage counseling is going to revolve around three general trouble spots—those trouble spots being children, sex, and finances. In your case, it happens to be finances.

Of course, marriages can be troubled for other reasons—cocaine addiction and outbursts of wrath to name two—but it would be fair to say that the most common are children (discipline of, education of, etc.), sex (frequency, quality, and difficulties in communicating about), and finances (this one can go in all kinds of directions, you name it).

But there are two kinds of financial troubles in marriage. The first would be when a couple has the same kind of financial trouble that they each had when they were unmarried. They were both undisciplined about money matters before they got together, and now they are exactly the same way—only there are two of them. They have all the usual troubles, but it is not necessarily trouble between them. They don’t blame one another for it because these troubles are all part of an inscrutable mystery called “money.” Why they always had too much month at the end of their money was a mystery before they got together also.

What I would advise a couple like this to do is to become cage stage Dave Ramseyites for about two years, and then to back it all off to reasonable after that. In other words, their financial troubles are simply financial troubles, and what they need to learn is financial discipline. In other words, they are married people with financial troubles, which is not the same thing as people with financially-fueled marriage troubles. If both husband and wife are thirty pounds overweight, what they should do is join Weight Watchers—they don’t need marriage counseling.

But the second kind of financial trouble in marriage is more of a relationship issue, with finances as the conduit that transmits their unhappiness with each other. The real problem is found in things like lack of leadership, abdication of headship responsibility, lack of submission, communication that is contaminated by bitterness, refusal to cooperate, and so on, and all this is exacerbated by the financial stressors. These financial factors are not really the source of the conflict, but are generally the occasion of the conflict, and given the pervasive nature of money, help to make the conflicts that much more gaudy and festive. Reading between this lines, this is where it appears you two are.

The financial stressors come from two basic directions—not enough provision, and too much outlay. Somebody doesn’t make enough, somebody spends too much, and sometimes a combination of both. From what both of you described to me, this is how your conflicts arise. But as mentioned above, they are not the reasons conflicts arise.

Conservative Christians—and you are certainly in that number—believe that God has assigned the husband the role of provision. The man is responsible to supply the basic necessities of life. The wife is the executive of the home—she is responsible to take what he provides, glorify it, and return it back to him. More about this in a minute.

When things are disjointed in the underlying relationship, it very easy to blame one another for the pressing financial challenges. In other words, husband says “what I earn would be more than enough if she were not found in fine stores everywhere . . .” And the wife asks why she is expected to stint when none of her friends have to do that. Throw into the mix the occasional exotic purchase made by the husband that enables her to wonder why she can’t have this when he gets to have that.

All of this is an optical illusion. The finances are the fuel to the conflict. The finances are what’s on fire. But the source of the heat is coming from elsewhere. The problem here is a man and a woman who do not know how to get along, but the fact that they live together means that finances are an essential part of the getting-along process. A joint checking account makes getting along mandatory, and an inability to get along makes life impossible.

All the financial counseling in the world is not going to help. If you enjoy finding fault with one another, then a regimen of financial discipline is only going to give you more material to find fault with. “We agreed that we were going to sit down to draft a budget by last Wednesday, and here it is Saturday . . .” “Wrong again, as usual. We did agree to that, but who went to a shower last Wednesday night, was out with her friends on Thursday night, and then was gone for an all-day shopping trip on Friday?”

I just now used the phrase “enjoy finding fault,” and both of you may have bridled at that. You tell yourself that you don’t enjoy the position you are in at all. And I do recognize that you don’t enjoy the position you are in, but while you are in that position, do you enjoy being right? Run this diagnostic test on yourself. Imagine something happening that seems to confirm one of your standard complaints against the other. You start to seethe over it, but then you discover that your spouse didn’t do “that thing” at all. He or she is entirely innocent. If there is any disappointment over the fact that things were not as bad as you thought, any disappointment over the fact that you won’t be able to use that in an argument, then you do in fact enjoy finding fault. And that is the deeper problem in all of this.

If you have a bad case of the flu, eating a big healthy meal, recommended by nutritionists everywhere, is only going to give you something to throw up. What you need to do is address the underlying problem, which is the flu. Simple financial counseling is just going to give you something to throw up. But at the same time, financial decisions do have to be made.

Spurgeon says somewhere that faults are thick when love is thin. And when we are at fault, one of the first things we need to do is learn how to confess our sins accurately. If we confess the right things in all this, what we will be getting at is a tangled knot of resentments, and not a simple financial challenge. I would urge the two of you to spend time with the Lord, confessing attitudes and reactions that you know are not pleasing to Him, whether or not the other person is doing what he or she should. Confess a critical spirit, or a lack of submission, or an unwillingness to lead, or a lack of a cooperative spirit. Confess your attitudes of superiority.

And so then what? Having said all this, what should you do? This is where things might get a little tricky. Just as you both use financial language to express what is really going on down below, revealing the gunky stuff, so you need to use the presenting financial challenges as a way of getting at what is down below. And what do I mean?

Your credit card bill is objectively far beyond your capacity to keep up with. That is an objective problem, whether or not it is the foundational problem in your marriage. When you start getting calls from bill collectors, which should be any day now, you won’t be able to say that “we got help from a counselor who said that finances were not the foundational issue.” They aren’t, but they are still a real problem that has to be dealt with in real time. You still owe the money.

So what should you do? You need to do what is mathematically necessary—cut your expenses drastically. You have direct control over that. You only have indirect control over whether a career shift would advantageous or not. That should be on the table, and added to your prayer list, but you need to cut up the credit cards now. That is something you can do immediately, and changing jobs is not something you can do immediately. However you got down in that hole you are in, you would be best advised to stop digging.

Now Diane, this is going to be a particular challenge for you, because it will seem that in that debate over income/outlay, I am taking sides with Jon. But this is not me, this is not the patriarchy, this is not a nebulous “they.” It is just math. You can’t afford what you are doing. Now you really can’t afford what you are doing while quarreling about it at the same time. The math is already no fun, and quarreling about it is a luxury that neither of you can afford.

So my advice is this. Have a family meeting where you sit down together, read a chapter of Scripture together, prayer for God’s blessing on your meeting, confess your fault-finding to one another, and conclude the meeting by cutting up your credit cards. This needs to be something that the two of you do together. And may God bless it.