It’s a sad story that I hear time and time again. One spouse is trying very hard to get their financial life back on track, while the other one is hiding a bunch of spending under the table. When it comes out – a misplaced bill is found, a credit card is rejected, a check bounces – it results in a mountain of hurt feelings and is usually coupled with some serious fighting. On at least one occasion I’m aware of, it’s resulted in divorce.
It’s always going to be hard if you set clear personal goals and then later find out that your spouse, either intentionally or otherwise, has been taking actions in the opposite direction of your goals. You feel betrayed, let down by the person you care for the most. You often feel angry that all of your efforts have been tossed aside so effortlessly. You feel helpless – after all of your efforts, you’re right back where you started.
This moment is make or break time. It’s one of those times in your life when you figure out what you’re made of – and what your spouse is made of, too. Here’s how I would handle it.
First, take a breather
As soon as you find out that your spouse hasn’t been on the same financial page as you, you’re going to be upset in some fashion. You might be angry. You might be sad and disappointed. You might want to just walk out and not come back.
Sit back and breathe for a while. Don’t say or do anything about it for a day or so, but don’t let it boil up, either. Instead, find another medium to vent. Write down what you’re feeling. Punch a pillow if you need to. Go for a long walk. Just don’t start discussing this when emotions are overwhelming you or else it won’t end well.
Think about what caused the situation
It’s also important to give some consideration as to what caused this situation. Obviously, if you’re upset right now, you’ve got a different vision of your finances than your partner. This leads to some important questions.
Are you sure your spouse was aware of your feelings about money? In many relationships, a partner might adopt a new set of ideas about money without ever properly discussing it with their partner. If you’ve turned over a new leaf of frugality without really discussing it with your spouse and they’ve just done like they’ve always done – spending money if it’s in the checking account, etc. – then you need to communicate with your partner a bit more. Your partner’s probably completely confused as to why you’re so upset right now.
Is your partner actually on board with financial progress? Another potential situation is that you talked things over with your partner, but without your partner’s buy-in. You might have had all of these big plans, but if your partner wasn’t really invested in all of these plans or if they felt like you were just preaching ideas at them, they probably have no real motivation to change anything.
Did your partner simply make a mistake? Everyone is human and makes mistakes, and overcoming a pattern of spending is a very difficult thing. Perhaps your partner is committed, but their will faltered a time or two. It’s a very human mistake, and forgiveness is always the correct path to take here.
If they were intentionally lying to you or misleading you, deeper marital issues may be involved. You may want to consider seeking a counselor, or at the very least address these concerns face to face. If your partner is being deliberately misleading, there’s likely a deeper problem that needs to be addressed.
Have a rational discussion about it
Once you’ve calmed down and reflected on the situation, have a discussion about it. Explain why you were upset and listen to the reasoning that your partner gives to you. Most of the time, the problem is the result of a lack of communication or confusion in communication, so make sure you both understand what the other is thinking.
The key is listening. Clearly, if you were shocked and surprised by a financial choice that your partner made, he or she is thinking differently than you are. Sit back and listen to your partner’s perspective without comment and make an effort to understand their perspective.
Don’t get angry. Anger solves nothing in a long-term relationship. Save your anger for later when you have a healthy channel for it. If you find yourself getting angry, excuse yourself and deal with it in another room, then return when you’ve calmed down.
Re-evaluate your shared dreams and goals
One common problem that often triggers such a divergence in behavior is that you’re not on the same page with your goals and dreams. You might think your partner has the same dreams that you do, but in fact in their heart they want other things. Or, perhaps you feel a goal can be achieved pretty quickly, but your partner feels that the goal is far off in the future.
Be honest, and ask your partner to be honest, too. If you’re planning things that he or she is not fully committed to, they’ll undermine those plans, whether consciously or otherwise. A long term shared goal doesn’t work unless you both want it, and you won’t know whether your partner truly wants it unless you’re committed to being honest.
Recognize that your partner may have different dreams than you. You might desperately want a bigger house, for example, but your partner might have no interest in such a thing and was simply acknowledging your dream. Instead of dragging your partner along for the ride, look for big dreams that you both share.
Let your partner lead. Let your partner identify the goals he or she finds deeply valuable, then identify the ones that you can share. Letting your partner lead in this process gives him or her a sense of ownership over setting the goals and defining the plans, and that means more commitment and emotional investment in success.
If all of this fails…
If you try all of these things and nothing seems to help the situation, a marriage counselor might be in order. Long-term relationships are built on trust and communication, and if either of those two aspects are failing without a clear root cause, you need to find someone who can help you find that root cause.