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When Knee-Jerk Reactions Cause Money Tension In Marriage

We’ve all been there. The plane ticket for your weekend getaway costs more than you expected and you dread having to tell your spouse because of their potential reaction. Or your spouse makes a “frivolous” purchase for the THIRD time this month and you feel your anger reach the boiling point. And then there are those “extra” fees for your daughter’s volleyball team that drive you nuts.

These scenarios probably sound familiar. Although everyone reacts in different ways, at some point we all have a negative response to something around money—especially what our spouse does with money! In doing research for our book Thriving in Love and Money, my husband Jeff and I found that these knee-jerk reactions often trace back to a few faulty patterns of thought. But if we can learn to recognize and catch those wrong assumptions, we can retrain our thinking and dramatically change our interactions with our spouse.

So what are some of these problematic assumptions that lurk under our “over-the-top” reactions? Let’s look at four common ones—and be honest about whether we recognize any of these in ourselves.

I’m right and you’re wrong.

Many of us have some preestablished ideas about how money should be managed. We “should” save 20% of what we make. We “should” allocate plenty of money for family activities rather than saving it all up. We “should” give the kids plenty of Christmas presents to make it special. (Or we “should” train them to expect only a few presents so they learn gratitude.)

We simply see certain ideas as categorically correct. But in reality, our ideas aren’t absolutes; they are just opinions or approaches. And the problem, of course, is that when our spouse has a different approach (as they often will) we instinctively have this knee-jerk feeling that our spouse is wrong. It’s just wrong to make frivolous expenditures like collector shoes! Instead of telling ourselves: each of us simply sees and relates to money differently, and my spouse’s desires are probably just as legitimate as mine.

The person who earns the money should have more of a say in how that money is spent.

Sometimes, there can be a subconscious feeling (by either spouse) that whoever earns a particular amount of money deserves a bit more say in handling that money. During our research we often heard double-income young couples say things like, “You can do whatever you want with your money,” with the implication being, “and don’t tell me what to do with mine.”

We also talked to many couples in which one partner worked long hours, made all of the household income . . . and subconsciously felt they deserved more say. (Even though both partners logically knew that a stay-at-home spouse facilitated their mate’s ability to earn income and saved the household a lot of money.) As one husband put it, “I resent that I’m the one working long hours, but because she wants to save everything for a house payment, she says I can’t go to a basketball game with a friend.” And on the flip side, several stay-at-home moms (and a few dads) said they often felt guilty when they bought something for themselves.

That sneaky, inaccurate idea that the person who earns the money deserves more say can also be the cause of a knee-jerk reaction.

If you are doing X now, it means you will do XX later.

Often, we make something (a spouse’s decision, a situation, a money problem) far bigger than it is by assuming it predicts something down the road. We project into the future and have knee-jerk reactions based on what we are assuming will happen. As one man explained, “If I’m looking at what she bought, it isn’t just about this purchase. In my mind, it is one of many. Shoes last week and pants today will mean new tops tomorrow.”

My spouse just doesn’t care.

Whether you think “She doesn’t care about how hard I have to work for our money,” or “he’s trying to control me by restricting my spending,” the temptation is the same: to jump to the worst conclusion about your spouse. To be fair, it is human nature to do this, but if we are going to foster trust and unity in our marriages, we need to start assuming the best of our partners.

So what do we do about it?

Did any of those sound familiar? If so, here’s the good news—once you peel back what is under your initial reaction and identify the incorrect belief underneath, you can begin dealing with the real issue.

Try these steps:

Step 1: List what applies to you and your spouse.

Go through the faulty assumptions (you can see all of them in Thriving in Love and Money) and identify which ones apply to you. Then identify areas where you and your spouse have contrasting opinions. This will help you watch out for those reactions going forward.

Step 2: Next time you are tempted toward a knee-jerk reaction (or see one from a spouse) ask yourself why.

Give yourself space between the experience of a feeling (or your spouse’s) and your actions. And ask yourself some probing questions about those feelings. For example, “Is my spouse wrong about not wanting to buy so many Christmas gifts, or do we just have a difference of opinion?” Or “Is my spouse really trying to control me by not letting me purchase that new rug, or is he just concerned about staying within our budget?”

Doing this will not only allow you space, but it will also help you understand yourself and your spouse better.

Step 3: Honor your spouse’s feelings.

Once you become aware of the knee-jerk tendencies that could be arising in you and your spouse, you will be more equipped to handle the problem before it becomes too big. If you realize you’ve overreacted, explain to your spouse what you’ve been realizing about what is under the surface. And, if needed, apologize in a way that honors them.

Always keep in mind that what we see on the surface of money issues (a seemingly irrational reaction) is often only a signal of something that lies beneath. Once we are willing to pause and examine our thoughts and feelings, we have a beautiful opportunity to move from conflict and overreactions and toward honest communication, connection, and much more intimacy.

For more tips on creating unity around finances, visit thriveinloveandmoney.com to take the free assessment or read more in our book, Thriving in Love and Money.)

And if you are interested in having Shaunti speak on kindness for your workplace, church, school or community group, please contact Nicole Owens at nowens@shaunti.com.

Please note: This post may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate we earn a small amount from qualifying purchases through these affiliate links. This doesn’t cost you anything, and helps us continue bringing you great content!

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