A reader asks how to help a newlywed friend. She’s paying the bills, keeping careful track, budgeting for every predictable expense. He’s running up unexpected bills, failing to warn her what they will owe this month or to turn over needed paperwork on time. And it’s drowning her in distress.
Can this marriage be saved? Can she live with a man like this? Of course she can. How long have preachers been warning right at the altar that richer and poorer are both possible and even a normal part of marriage?
Marriages can work and be outrageously happy with little money or with lots. But they are almost always unpleasant when we believe our mate causes the problems we experience.
Please do not let me imply it is OK for anyone to run their husband or wife into debt looking for that next dopamine hit or to sit at home playing sudoku while their mate does all the work. It’s not OK to do this, and it’s not OK to provide anyone else with the means to do this.
But the thing that starts most divorce-bound resentments is nowhere near this big.
The Source of the Money Problem
Is a surprise bill for $500 a problem? Not if you have $50,000 cash on hand. Not if the source of the bill surprises you but your budget includes $750 a month for surprises.
Your resentment comes not from the expense, but from your expectation about what a wise or loving person would do with the money.
You will find it much easier to love your spouse when you let go of the expectation that money means the same thing to both of you and you should therefore agree on how much you need or how it gets spent.
If you need a budgeted amount or a cash reserve to feel secure and to perhaps even enjoy paying for something your spouse needed or wanted, why not add it to the budget or start building the cash reserve?
It is quite normal to have different risk tolerance levels, different long-term financial goals, different reactions to spontaneity vs. predictability. When you disagree, find a Third Alternative, an option that gives both of you what you need.
A good friend, like the one who asked the question, can help morph a complaint about differences into a set of specs for an alternative that works for both of them. Friends can also help brainstorm creative ways to get what both want.
Belief Gets in the Way
Some will say we cannot find more money or more time. I know for certain we can. I know it because my husband dropped dead, and I had to. Suddenly it became possible, because I was willing to work harder, take more risks, and do less unnecessary stuff. I know it because every couple that divorces, claiming they never had enough money, finds the money for two homes, duplicate bedrooms and toys for the kids, separate vacations with the kids.
Many will say, “Unfair! Why should I bring in more money or spend less on something else when my spouse could fix the problem by becoming more responsible with money?”
Marriage is always unfair. Just add up what you would spend to live alone, what chores you would need to do living alone, how much you would spend on looking for love, how much time it would take to help your kids maintain close relationships with both parents. Most married folks have an incredibly unfair advantage. Why would they consider jeopardizing all this over a squabble about how much more money and time they could be saving?
A friend can help an embattled spouse measure what’s happening against a realistic alternative, instead of the alternative of a fantasy spouse who thinks just as we do. A friend can help come up with ways to deal with the real problem instead of turning it into a marriage problem.
Could, Not Should
I do not mean to say the more money-cautious spouse must be the one to fix this problem. Not at all. But for me, in my first 13 years of marriage, the idea that I could be the one to fix our problems never occurred to me. The idea that my spouse could be perfectly at ease with a situation that created stress for me and that my stress and my reaction to it were the real problems getting between us never occurred to me. The idea that fair is not half as satisfying as close never occurred to me.
And then he was dead, and I had to earn all the money, pay all the bills, make everything work. There was no one to whom I could say, “We have to talk.” (By the way, no matter how you mean this, it almost always sounds like, “Bad dog. Come! Sit!”) All I could say, to my reflection in the mirror, was, “One more problem solved. What’s next?”
It was bone-crushingly depressing to realize I could have done the same while I still had a chance to enjoy the very special man I had chosen to wed.
Want help figuring out how to enjoy whatever time you have with your husband or wife, in spite of money issues? Use the comments section. Give yourself a phony name and a blank URL to remain anonymous. But please include your email address. It will not be published. It will let me notify you when I post a reply and perhaps include some extra, unpublished suggestions.