Is money ruining your relationship? It’s easy to say that we fight about money because it’s scarce. But unless your fight is about student loans, gambling or property, there’s a good chance that the fight is not about a make-or-break expense. Most of our fights are about our judgements, not our bank accounts. Once we realize why we fight, we can start to break out of the cycle of fighting over money. I’m a lawyer, not a psychologist – so I’m phrasing this as “ideas” and not “tips.” They’re little brainstorms I had after I had a fight about money.
When The Fights Amount to More than The Money
A few days ago, my boyfriend and I got into one of our first fights about money. You will scoff at how stupid the fight is but I think the simplicity and low stakes make it a good case study.
We were on vacation. I had put in two hours at the meter, and we came back with 31 minutes left. Because we were feeding the meter (sorry parking enforcement!), we couldn’t add on the two hours. If we paid immediately, we would lose the 31 minutes we already paid for.
I was downloading the app so that we could go to lunch and pay the next 2 hours from the restaurant. But my bf wanted to pay immediately to get it done. He also later said that he saw it as 13 minutes, instead of 31. Also he didn’t know I was downloading the app. I told him not to pay but he went ahead and paid it anyway. I told him that it wouldn’t add on, and he said it would (he admitted to be wrong).
In the end, I was completely pissed. I was solving the problem and he rushed in with his solution. And to add insult to injury, he kept making jokes about the parking meter, completely oblivious to the fact that I was upset.
Why We Fight About Money
Let’s talk about why I was fighting. Even I didn’t really understand it. It was a stupid inconsequential fight. I realized this almost immediately. And yet I had a visceral emotional reaction and was in a fight-or-flight response. Though I refrained from launching into war, I still had to consider what the real meaning of this fight was.
We Fight To Keep Our Identity
BF asked if I would be upset if the same situation had occurred where he was a friend instead of a boyfriend. Of course not. I think of us as a unit so his mistakes seem like an extension of my values. Because I grew up in an immigrant family, I became instinctively triggered at the waste of money.
A few years ago my mother became inconsolable after a parking ticket showed up on our car.I was shocked that she still cared so much when in the whole scheme of things, the fee was not life-changing. If she had received the ticket when she was still struggling as a new immigrant, I would have understood. Then again, maybe our emotions don’t change even though our bank accounts do. And perhaps we also fight really hard to keep our past identities in check. Once our identity seems threatened, our emotions can go out of control.
Money is Used to Control
BF was concerned that if he just kowtowed to what I wanted, then he would be ceding control. At first, that sounds ridiculous, but then again he had a method and I vetoed it. I was mad that he didn’t do something in the way that I wanted. In my mind, his way was wrong and he should realize my idea was better. I was placing my value of saving a few cents over his value of efficiency. And I was stinking mad that he chose differently.
I didn’t like to think of myself as controlling but I’m not sure there is any other way to view my actions. As a lawyer, I am used to people listening to me and considering what I say. It was a little jarring to have my comeuppance.
5 Ideas to Keep Money from Ruining Your Relationships
1. Don’t Fight Every Battle
I was SO ANGRY at first because of my boyfriend losing the 30 minutes of time. The most important part of this fight was that I really didn’t need to fight it. It was a completely inconsequential sum of money. It was past tense and we couldn’t change it.
The only person you can completely control is yourself. I’m not saying that you have to sublimate all your desires but you do have to pick and choose your fights, particularly if you’re a short-tempered person. Too many wars and both of you end up battered, as well as your relationship.
2. Acknowledge Your Expectations
We generally enter into relationships with a set of expectations. These are passed down from family, culture, and friends. For instance, consider how this simple parking meter incident triggered my feelings about my identity and control. But your partner comes with a different set of expectations and may have different values. Whereas you think spending an extra $0.50 on parking is a crime, your partner might not. And neither of you is wrong. It just becomes a game of compromise and letting go.
The important thing is that in many of your fights – there will be no clear right answer. It’s just about respecting your partner and his/her values and figuring out a solution that you can both accept.
3. Try Blaming Yourself First
Often we start fights because we feel some sort of emotion and we want to blame someone else. But we don’t need to blame our significant other. It won’t help things and it sure can cause harm. Instead, we have to look at our responsibility in the strife. Is it the expectations that we are bringing into the relationship? Did we do something wrong? Was our partner making completely reasonable actions considering what he/she knew? It helps to take a third person perspective and see things from our partner’s eyes.
If I had first started to listen to my boyfriend, I would have known that he had no idea I was trying to solve the parking ticket problem, that I was downloading the app, that I was upset, and that I continued to be upset. Ignorance on any one of these facts explains why the fight escalated instead of being defused.
5. Fight Fair
I already wrote an article about how to fight fair about politics, and many of the maneuvers are the same. If you fight dirty, you will never stop fighting. The most important thing is to assume your partner comes with good intentions and remember that you love them. How you handle yourself during a fight is far more important than the fight itself.
Conclusion – Money Ruining Your Relationship? Stop Fighting Now.
Money is important but it’s not the end-all. Too many relationships are doomed over disagreements over money. Don’t let this happen to you! As a lawyer, you know that settling is likely the best way to get a win-win ending. Litigation – constant fighting – wears both parties down and just keeps the attorneys rich. But in a relationship, you don’t want to pay any attorneys. Keep money from ruining your relationship by understanding your part and defusing the situation. Don’t consider it settling – consider it saving your relationship.