Approximate read time: 9 minutes
Without Googling I bet you can name at least five financial reasons couples get divorced. And you’d likely be right on. But just knowing the reasons that finances torpedo relationships isn’t enough.
If a listicle of reasons was enough to save marriages, we’d all be just fine. And we are not fine.
Typical financial reasons given for divorce read like this:
- credit card debt
- a parent/child relationship around money
- impulse spending
- lack of agreement
- can’t keep with a budget
- not compromising
- unequal income
- opposing priorities
- differing upbringing
- financial infidelity
- differing views on how to talk to children/family about money
- major unexpected expenses
I’m sure you can think of at least three more.
What we’re listing out here is actually a list of symptoms. Resolving a financial symptom looks exceedingly simple, right? You can’t agree with your partner on how much to spend on dinner, well then just find some common ground already! You can’t keep a budget together, well then just get it together and stick to a budget!
Again, it’s not that simple.
In my practice, I see all of these symptoms, and they always break down to either one or both of two underlying “diseases”. Just two.
- A lack of connection between the partners
- Using the wrong tool for the job
A Lack of Connection Can Kill Your Marriage
I’m sure you’ve heard the old canard “Communication Is Key”, but is it, really? Modern couple therapists know something the rest of us may not, and that is that communication can only happen when a couple is deeply connected. When you and your partner are connected through all the intimacy domains, communication is a foregone conclusion… almost a guarantee.
Think about the last time you and your partner had a “money talk”. Did you both feel heard, seen, and safe? If you didn’t, you are not alone. Not by a long shot. Even if you feel connected, respected, and heard in all other domains of your lives together, money holds a unique sway over us.
Money is a resource. In our modern economy, it is THE resource. This goes beyond status or comfort. Money, the lack of money, or even the potential lack of money triggers the same kind of scarcity in our survival-obsessed brains as a lack of food. This anxiety, while traumatic and all-consuming, is our animal brains trying desperately to keep us alive. And anything or anyone that comes between that primitive, but powerful part of our brain and a resource will trigger our survival instincts.
And our connections to our partners suffer for it.
Let’s look inside the journals of Sam and Mo, a fictional married couple. Last night they had quite the “discussion” about finances.
“She seriously put a down payment on a vacation for the summer without asking me. @*!%#! We literally just had a talk last week about making use of the money from the bonus. We should be saving that money, or at least killing the credit card balance with it. Not going on a (*&)! vacation.”
“We don’t know when we’re going to have this money again, we should be saving it.”
“Well, that’s what I get for trying to do something nice. He’s barely talking to me. The deposit on the vacation is nonrefundable. It’s not like we don’t have it just sitting around. We’ve both been stressed and a vacation would be great for us to restart and reconnect. I tried to tell him that but he just won’t listen.”
“We don’t know when we’re going to have this money again, we should be using it while we have it.”
Both partners are stuck in desperation, crisis, and scarcity. “We just need to find common ground” I hear my clients say, and that’s fine if you’re negotiating, but we are not negotiating. You can’t negotiate, or even communicate with two fired-up nervous systems.
And nervous systems get fired up when they feel a threat. Our brains/nervous systems are flat-out obsessed with looking for threats. When your brain is looking for a threat, guess what it’s going to find. It’s going to find threats.
Back to The Journals
“She got really aggressive… she just kept saying the same things over and over again…. ‘You always do this, I was trying to do something nice, you should be thanking me, I’m trying to save this marriage’.”
“If she really wanted to save the marriage she’d understand that it isn’t just about the money, it’s about not even bringing it up, much less asking, and I’m the one who has to keep the peace once she starts yelling… she wonders why I stop talking, and then yells at me for shutting down. I can’t do anything right.”
“Of course, he just shut down. Of course, he did. That’s his way out of everything. This is still something we need to talk about. If he understood how important this is to me he wouldn’t shut down. I refuse to feel like the bad guy if he isn’t even willing to talk to me.”
“He clearly isn’t taking this seriously, the vacation thing or the marriage. How long does he think I can tolerate being ignored and shut out?”
Most of us can easily identify more with Mo or Sam, but truly most of us will see ourselves in both Mo and Sam, depending on the situation.
These two are stuck in what the couple’s therapists call the threat/protection cycle (or dance).
All living organisms are expected to protect or defend themselves against a perceived threat. It would be weird if Mo and Sam weren’t also protecting themselves.
Unfortunately, the things we do to protect ourselves can be perceived by our partners as a threat.
Sam is concerned with being a failure and feels threatened when she accuses him and yells. So he shuts down to protect himself.
Mo is concerned with rejection and feels threatened when he shuts down. So she gets assertive/aggressive to protect herself from that rejection.
And there we have it, two all-the-way fired-up nervous systems. Each partner feels threatened by their partner’s attempts to protect themself. No one feels seen, respected, or safe.
How much do you see of your own relationship in this simplified story? How often are you feeling trapped, overwhelmed, and unsafe?
And in the midst of all of that, you’re expecting yourselves to keep a budget, talk about credit card debt, agree on priorities, compromise, discuss goals, talk honestly about your spending, AND decide whether or not to eat out tonight.
You’ll never be able to do any of those things without communication, and you will never have communication without connection.
The Right Tool For The Job
Many years ago, I was moving with the help of my wonderful family. As we were moving boxes in, I was opening boxes and putting things away. My Dear Old Dadders, watching me cut open a box, gently asked “Daughter, do you have a box cutter?”. “I have a steak knife” I responded, showing him said knife. “But do you have a BOX cutter?” Never one to pass up an opportunity to pester the lovely guy, I said, “Yep! I have this steak knife.”
I’m sure you can feel my dad’s frustration. That was the wrong tool for the job. There were efficiency concerns, sure, but there were safety concerns too.
So I suppose it’s only fair that now, as I’m working with couples, and they are sharing many of the same connection/communication issues as above, and I ask “Do you have a box cutter?”, they answer “Yes, we have been using this steak knife.”
You Can’t Fix a Connection/Communication Concern With a Mechanical Tool.
And yet, because mechanical tools (budgets, to-do lists, strategy, tracking apps, etc.) are pretty much the only tools we’ve been given, they are the only ones we’ll use.
Couples stuck in that threat/protection cycle trying to fix it by entirely separating their finances.
Couples trying desperately to make themselves heard while unintentionally hurting their partners trying to fix it by trying every possible premade budgeting system on the planet.
I teach a lot of mechanical tools. Fully a third of my curriculum is all about system-building, adapting customized budgets, tracking routines, and holistic goal setting. But we don’t work on a single one of those until my clients are connected and communicating. Not ever.
And you’d better believe I get push-back on that. “Why are we talking about conflict and connection when the real issue is the fact that he/she/we can’t do X, Y, or Z?”
Because without the underlying foundation of soft skills, connection, communication, and the resulting ability to problem solve, the mechanics of money will never stick.
This is our second disease, using tools that don’t work.
So when it’s time to talk mechanics, one of the things we do is build new tools, but more importantly, we discard tools that aren’t currently working. (looking at you, steak knife)
Conventional financial wisdom is garbage. Focusing on your needs not your wants, magically sticking to a budget, and restrictions, and bending your life to a system will not work, at least not longer than about a month.
You’ve probably heard these little bits of wisdom millions of times and repeated them just as many times. But just because these are the only tools you’ve been given doesn’t mean they are the only tools or even the best tools.
So As a Financial Coach, What Do I Teach My Clients To Do Instead?
I teach them how to build their own financial tools. Together we custom-build a system (budget) right into their lives. This system has to evolve and change with your life, and spending must be intentional and expected, NOT restricted.
- Evaluate the system, not yourself. By focusing on the system, you can more easily change it. If your only takeaway from trying that budget is “I’m not good at budgeting”, you’ll be much less likely to ever try again. And trying again is how we get to resilience and change.
- What worked? What didn’t? Again, evaluating the system
- Change 20% of the system. Even just changing the layout of the budget may make it more effective. Moving it from digital to paper or vice versa, etc. What you change is less important than the idea of changing or iterating the system.
- Run an experiment. Ok, so you’ve changed 20% of your budgeting system, now let it run a little and re-evaluate (Step 2) If you’re not keeping with it, that says more about the budgeting system than it does about you. If you dropped off using it, that’s really good data!
We are leveraging system building here, and building change and adaptation right into the system (this is sometimes called iterative development).
The one takeaway I want people to have here is that you should be building a budgeting system to fit your life, not expecting your life to magically fit into a budgeting system.
The soft skills (connection, communication, problem-solving) and the mechanical tools aren’t mutually exclusive. Many of the common financial reasons for divorce are easily symptoms of these two co-occurring diseases:
A lack of connection between the partners
Using tools that don’t work
Your Very Next Steps:
- Download the threat/protection worksheet and complete it for yourself. This is an individual exercise in service of your relationship. Please do not provide feedback to your partner on their behavior.
- Just observe the threat/protection cycle in your relationship. Don’t fight with it, don’t try to fix it, just observe it. It sounds counterintuitive, but awareness is often enough to slow the cycle down a bit, giving you both a moment to breathe.
- Examine the financial tools you are currently using. Are they working? Are they easy to use? Do they fit your life?
Next Recommended Article: What is Financial Infidelity?
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