“If we just had more money it would change everything . . .”
That thought comes so easily when there are financial tensions in marriage. “If we just had an extra $200 per month, we wouldn’t argue about keeping the A/C turned down so low.” Or, “If my salary were higher, her weekly trips to Costco wouldn’t stress me out.”
Those “if . . . then” thoughts are so tempting. After all, they allow us to blame the lack of money (or one another) rather than looking too closely at ourselves. They also suggest such an easy solution: just a few more dollars, and poof! Our marital problems are solved!
But the hard truth is: those tempting beliefs are also wrong. As we interviewed and surveyed thousands of people for our book, Thriving in Love and Money, we found that the amount of money in our bank account is not usually related to the amount of happiness in our marriage. In fact, high-net-worth couples usually just laughed sardonically when we asked if their wealth relieved tension around money. (“Are you kidding?” One wife exclaimed. “It just gives you more to have tension about!”)
What we did find in our study, however, was many couples with a trend worth investigating: couples who had limited funds but were thriving in their relationship and (mostly) not allowing their challenging finances to depress their marriage.
So what is the secret of having a great relationship with your spouse, and managing money well together, even without that extra boost to the bank account? Here are three research-based habits that will point you in the right direction, no matter where you are financially.
Habit #1: Believe the best of your spouse’s intentions toward you
Whenever you’re frustrated or hurt, get in the habit of telling yourself that your spouse does care (since that is almost certainly the truth), and look for a more generous explanation of their behavior. This is important for everything in marriage, but is particularly crucial around money.
For example, suppose your spouse notices you come in the door with some extra purchases. Your spouse seems tense, and that night asks if you two can review the spending budget. It is tempting to get defensive and think, “My spouse is shaming me” or “My spouse is trying to control me.” Instead, believe the best: “I’ll bet my spouse is worried because we had to dip into our emergency savings to fix the car, and he/she knows I’ll need a new car soon.”
Look for evidence that your spouse cares about you. You’ll see it everywhere. And it will turn what could have been an opportunity for tension and discord into an opportunity for understanding and connection. (And if you believe you are in the small percent of couples where your spouse is purely selfish and doesn’t care … that is rare, but it does happen. If so, please reach out for professional help and counsel.)
Habit #2: Cultivate contentment and gratitude
Expecting marriage or money to make us happy will always lead to disappointment. But there is something that will lead to joy in those areas: cultivating the habit of contentment and gratitude.
How? Shortly after commanding the persecuted church members in Ephesus to “Rejoice!” the Apostle Paul gives the prescription for how to do exactly that, even in a time of trial: “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.”
There will always be worries… and there will always be things that are worthy of praise. Focusing on the latter changes everything.
One couple we interviewed, Fernando and Olivia, had a deep contentment despite their constrained financial situation – and one of the main factors was their genuine gratitude. As he described, “I make $18 an hour and we have a family of five in one of the most expensive cities in the country. Our rent alone is $1,900 a month. But we have two working vehicles and our kids aren’t deprived. Somehow, we make it happen. I work two jobs. And even with all of that, I know we’re kind of broke.”
Olivia added, “But we love our lives. Our three girls share one room, and they don’t complain. We have three twin beds in one bedroom. And two dogs and seven fish.”
“And a turtle,” Fernando added.
Habit #3: Trust God cares
This couple emphasized the much deeper factor that allowed them to have this grateful outlook: A very, very practical trust in God’s provision and care. This is the final and most essential step for thriving in money and marriage.
Fernando and Olivia had not always been content. Fernando described that for most of his life he was “the person who worried about money,” to the point of panic attacks and depression. Then came the day the power to their family’s small apartment was about to be turned off. Fernando finally confessed to his wife that he was at a breaking point. This drove them from being disconnected church attenders to being on their knees. As Fernando explained, they “finally put it in God’s hands.” In this crisis, they chose to trust their heavenly Father, and believe that God would take care of them.
“The next day, we got a check in the mail for almost the exact amount of the overdue bill,” he said.
They decided to embark on a life of faith with their tight finances, handling money as well as they could and trusting God with the rest. And since then, Olivia notes, “Somehow, God always provides.”
We have heard that from many people in our research and seen it many times in our own life: Doing the work to come together in marriage and money and then trusting God with the outcome will yield far more for your life than a technically-perfect financial plan. That sort of faith, unity, and intimacy is worth more than anything money can buy.
If you enjoyed this article, learn what’s underneath the common knee-jerk reactions couples have around money – and what you can do about them to alleviate tension in your marriage.
This article was also published at Patheos.
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