"The issues couples face about money are very rarely about money. Usually it's a conflict of values or perspectives, or a reflection of our fears about money," says Syble Solomon, a popular speaker on the psychology of money for whom money and marriage is a big topic. "For one person, money may represent security; for another, freedom. It may mean being accepted or proving something to your parents (whether they're still alive or not). Success can be the big house or expensive car. For someone else, success is being debt-free." Solomon points to a Utah State University study on marriage issues that found arguments about money are the biggest indictor of divorce.
What to do? Couples help can vary depending on the people involved, but certain things generally hold true. "Couples have different ways of addressing their relationship with money. Frequently they collude," Solomon says. "They recognize that there are issues and they both choose never to bring them into the light." She describes a typical situation when one partner – say it's the husband — doesn't approve of something, like helping adult children. He knows his wife is giving money to their daughter on the side. His wife suspects he knows, but also never brings it up. The danger, Solomon says, is that one person is keeping a secret. Over time, the secret wears away at you. When you're doing something in secret, it makes you feel dishonest. You're not feeling good about yourself and may compensate in other ways, like spending too much on a gift for your partner, to buy off silence or out of guilt.
The Unemptied Nest
More and more middle-age couples have adult kids who have never left home, or are back because they're unable to support themselves. "The finances that go along with that are a big surprise," Solomon says. "One parent, usually the wife, gets the rap for bringing the children in. But when I talk to couples, it's as often the man who invites the child back home. You're feeding the kids, they're in your house, using water and electricity, not paying rent. Maybe they're asking for help with car payments, insurance, gas."
Here again, Solomon says, the issues are not so much about the money as drawing the line between supporting and enabling their kids. One parent may think the kid needs expensive clothes for job interviews, while the other parent thinks a suit bought at Goodwill is good enough. You have to take it back to values, Solomon says, and understand that you're not disagreeing on whether to help, just on how to do it. "What's important is staying open and honest. Sit down with the child and say, 'This is the amount of money we've allocated to help you – whether it's $100, $500 or $5,000. What's the best way for you to utilize it? Some parents want to make things easier for the child, others want it to be a life lesson. Some parents work out an agreement that they'll be paid back when the kid is working."
Guilt and status are huge here. If a parent feels they didn't do right by the child – maybe their child is learning disabled and didn't get help soon enough – they feel guilt. "I know a couple whose adult child was living home and the parents wanted him to have the best. The mother wanted him to have the most wonderful time he can. The father wanted the kid to look good, to support the image of success. Their child was partying and traveling." They may then argue because they don't have enough money for other things. By enhancing their son's life, they may be jeopardizing their own future.
Retirement, Ready or Not
"Retirement is always a big transition," Solomon says. "Even if you plan for it there are issues." These days, many people end up in retirement that is not planned, due to job loss and inability to find work. "Regardless of how you come to be retired, a lot of issues at midlife don't surface as strongly when there's a good income coming in. As soon as that stops, even if there's enough money, they crop up. For someone to whom money is a security issue, it may be difficult to spend, even when money isn't in short supply. One spouse visualizes taking vacations, visiting kids and grandkids, while the other is saying, 'Do you know how much flights cost at the holidays!'" One feels this hollow space they try to fill with financial security, while the other wants to spend time with family, enrich their lives. If they don't understand their own emotional needs, they can feel betrayed by the other person.
Elderly Parents – What To Do and When
Ask somebody for advice on dealing with elderly parents who can no longer live alone, and you'll get six or seven suggestions. But if you're emotionally involved, you often can only think of one option, Solomon says. A husband and wife can have serious emotional issues relative to the situation — guilt, responsibility, wanting to help, fear for their own financial future, conflict about what they won't be able to do for their kids and grandkids because of caring for parents, issues with siblings. "Each person comes to this discussion with a lot of baggage," Solomon says. The remedy: It can be helpful to work with a counselor, a support group, or a specialist on aging issues.
Solomon has developed a teaching tool for couples help around money and marriage. Money Habitudes is a deck of cards with 52 different statements of beliefs. Each partner sorts a deck into piles — "this sounds like me," or it doesn't. "Any of the cards can start a conversation. What I hear most from couples who'd been fighting is, 'We didn't realize we had anything in common,'" Solomon says. And now they do.