Money Fights: The 3 Mistakes Couples Make When Talking about Debt
The other day a simple conversation with my husband took a turn for the worst. I was just having one of those days where I was frustrated that our debt was preventing us from achieving our dreams and goals. See, I want a house. I want have children sooner rather later. I want us to pursue our dream of running a business, and the list could go on. And this debt was preventing us from moving towards these goals. As I continued to wallow in self-pity I saw my husbands face slowly turn from a look of support and encouragement, to shame and frustration. This is when I knew something went terrible wrong. At first I thought ‘why can’t you just listen to me vent.’ But as I looked into his eyes I saw the pain I was causing.
Money fights are awful and happen all too often. In order to understand the dangerous territory I was willfully entering, let me give you some background. Like many couples my husband and I entered into marriage starry eyed and completely in love. Behind us hidden from the view of public was the debt each person was bringing. I brought about 33,000 in student loans. My husband brought about $115,000 in student loans from law school. In total, we entered marriage about 150,000 in the negative.
So what were the three mistakes I made that led to money fights?
Mistake #1: Expressing Financial Superiority
What I failed to realize in our conversation was that, it was obvious to my husband that he brought in the majority of our debt. By continuing to communicate over and over how frustrated I was that we had to pay about $1,500 in minimal student loan payments each month (insert gag reflex), I was communicating much more than I thought. I was communicating (whether intentionally or not) 1) that my husband’s decisions were destroying my life. 2) It was all his fault. And well let’s face it… that is a recipe for disaster!
This is a common mistake many couples make. One person enters the marriage with more debt than the other and that person whether conscious or not lords over there financial superiority over the other.
Truth is it was not all his fault. The debt he incurred was done primarily to lead to a stable and dependable career not to be a burden on a spouse. More than that my husband hates the debt just as much as I do. In truth we both made decisions and as a team we both get to grow and work together to get out of debt.
Mistake #2: It is your debt not mine
A friend of mine entered into marriage with over $250,000 in debt. She married a man that took great care of his finances and entered the marriage with savings and zero debt. His response to her was “it is your debt to deal with”.
Truth is when you get married, whether you like it or not you are marrying the whole person, baggage and all. More and more millenials are entering into marriage with a lot of debt baggage. No wonder why fights over money are often the catalyst for divorce. Your spouses success is your success, and their failure is your failure. By communicating that it is their mess to clean up you are preventing a true partnership from forming. If you don’t communicate, two separate views of finances will form. This will inevitably end in countless fights over money.
Now I am not saying that you should bail out your spouse over and over. Nor should you enable bad spending habits. What I am saying is that you must be a team with a common mission. If I am the only one working hard to financial goals this will lead to feelings of disrespect which is a ticking time bond in any relationship.
Mistake #3: Not realizing we are a team
I recently heard a friend say we never drift towards good behavior. Or another way of saying it, is we never drift toward good habits, but rather we only arrive there with intentional hard work. Getting on the same page in marriage, on any topic is hard work. We must both agree to stay in the conversation and seek to understand the other’s point of view.
Going back to my earlier illustration. I was ready to walk away from the conversation because my husband stopped expressing sympathy for my pity party. He shifted from sympathy to frustration himself. It wasn’t until my husband pointed out that he was aware that most of the debt was his. Finally, I realized I was not communicating that we are a team! Instead I was communicating that if he didn’t come into marriage with all this debt we would be happier. That is a lied and just not true. I paused… took a breath… and apologized. My happiness is not my husbands responsibility, but rather an inside job only I can control. Not only did I apologize but I pointed out all of the things he had done right financially. I thanked him for his hard work, perseverance, and desire to provide. We both calmed down and ended the conversation as we do with more disagreements. We realized we are a team and will do this together.
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