By Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn
Financial challenges are everywhere these days, aren’t they? Inflation is taking a bite out of budgets, and don’t even get us started on gas prices! Thankfully, there is a way to keep strained finances from creating a strained relationship.
We learned this very personally, ourselves. In March of 2020 we were releasing our latest research project and book –this time, to help married couples come together around money. Finances had always been our biggest marriage issue, and we tried to avoid the entire topic. But we learned so much in our research, and when Thriving in Love and Money was published we were determined to practice what we’d preached.
Ten days later, a national emergency was declared. The Covid-19 global pandemic shut everything down. We suddenly went from having a reasonable business model and cash flow for our ministry and our family, to seeing all speaking engagements cancelled, book sales plummet, and many ministry efforts pivoting onto completely different tracks.
Little did we know that following the principles in our book would keep our relationship afloat during one of the worst financial crises of our 28-year marriage. Here are the principles that mattered most for us – and that the data shows will likely matter for you as well.
It’s not about the money – so what is it about?
Our research found that when a couple has friction over money, it’s not about the money. The tension feels like it is about the dollars and cents but is actually about other factors under the surface –like how money makes us feel, our insecurities and fears, and how we process decisions.
Focusing on the dollars and cents is a trap because then there are only two solutions: earn more or spend less. But once you focus on what is under the surface, suddenly, solutions arise that help the relationship thrive despite the challenges – which then allows the two of you to get on the same page for the right financial answers.
In our case, we had begun to understand a few of these under-the-surface factors – for example, my greater comfort spending money triggers Jeff’s deep concerns (rooted in his early-adult years of poverty) about not having enough in the future — and were about to get a crash course in coming together to address them!
Talking about those factors is essential
We had seen in the data that the ability to talk about money was essential for a great relationship – which of course meant talking about those under-the-surface factors first. So we had committed to doing that instead of avoiding it.
A few days into the shock of the pandemic shutdown, Jeff came to me (Shaunti) and confessed that he was struggling with resentment about the money we had spent on nonessentials the prior year. His mind kept circling back to the trip to Disney World, the restaurants we’d enjoyed as a family, and those occasional times we went bowling or saw a movie. If we had avoided spending that money, we would have thousands more dollars in our bank account – funds we could really use in our dire situation.
Even though it can be hard to hear, it is crucial for every spouse to make –and welcome –an honest effort to share what is in their mind. Especially, if they feel any resentment arising, since our research discovered that it is important to catch it early. (Statistically, resentment is the tension most likely to lead to many others.)
Honoring what your spouse values (even if you disagree) is the core of what you have to talk about
But we can’t stop with sharing what is in our own mind. We have to share and honor what we think is in our spouse’s mind as well. This is the crucial step that moves money challenges from being an opportunity for conflict to being an opportunity for connection.
For example, when Jeff shared his bubbling resentment, he also dug deeper to try to recognize and appreciate what was behind my desire to handle money in a certain way (trips, eating out, movies). Here is what he said:
“I’ve always seen spending money as a net loss – dollars out the door. But I think you see it as an investment that will come back to us in better ways. Those times we took the kids bowling or when we went to Disney, you were creating memories and closeness as a family. And now we’re all stuck in quarantine on top of each other – and we like each other! I still might have spent money differently –like a picnic in the park instead of a restaurant night out – but I really appreciate that you were investing in our family.”
Suddenly, all my defenses lowered. All the negative feelings that used to make things spiral out of control when we talked about money were gone. Which made it so much easier for us to then lean into the tough conversation about embracing a strict financial austerity plan that would not only get us through a difficult financial season but also was also very personally important for Jeff.
What about you?
So as you navigate your own financial challenges…what is under the surface in your spouse and your marriage, that you two need to talk about? What is it that you two might disagree on, but that you can examine and realize – and say! —I see why that is important to you.
Taking those steps won’t solve a drastic rise in the cost of groceries or gas, and it won’t suddenly make your job (or your side gig) more profitable. But it will bring the two of you together. And if you are together, you can navigate these rocky waters in such a special way that when you look back, years from now, you may realize that although you wouldn’t have chosen the financial turmoil – you truly wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.