This is the fourth entry in an eight part series exploring the connections between your finances and other areas of your life.
A few weeks ago, I started a series exploring the connections between personal finance and the other “spheres” of my life. The first entry covered the connections between one’s physical life and financial life, the second entry covered the connections between one’s mental and spiritual life and financial life, the third entry covered the connections between one’s intellectual life and financial life and today we’re looking at one’s marital/romantic life and financial life.
As noted in the first entry, I tend to view life as a bunch of “spheres,” or areas of focus. I really like Michael Hyatt’s list of nine such “spheres”: physical, mental/spiritual, intellectual, social, marital, parental, avocational (hobbies), vocational, and financial – they cover much of what life is all about. I’ve come to view these spheres as deeply interconnected, in that success in one sphere is usually linked in some significant ways to success in other spheres (and failures are similarly connected) and that knowing the connections can help people figure out how to succeed in both areas at once.
Today, we’re going to look at the marital sphere, which goes beyond just marriage and covers all lasting romantic relationships.
What Is “Marital Life”?
Obviously, marital life refers to the relationship you have with the person you’re married to. However, the idea of “marital life” extends beyond a nominal marriage, however. Most of the benefits of a marriage extend to almost every long term romantic relationship that involves cohabitation, even if the people involved are not married in the legal or religious sense of the word.
Is that relationship healthy? Is it strong? Is it full of trust? Is it a source of happiness in your life? That’s marital life.
Such a relationship, when healthy, confers a ton of benefits on the participants. Here are just some of them.
First, you’re able to take advantage of a ton of shared bills. If you’re cohabitating, you might have a somewhat larger home, but you’re sharing all of the bills and household responsibilities. Even if having two people on board means a 50% larger home with 50% larger bills, then both individuals are still saving 25% of
Second, if you’re married, you become eligible for a bunch of tax benefits. You have access to joint filing of your income taxes, which can save you significant money over filing your taxes separately. The tax brackets for married people are much more friendly, too.
Third, if you’re married, you have a bunch of additional options for retirement planning and health insurance. For retirement planning, you have the ability to diversify your overall retirement savings and you have a much larger window for things like Roth IRA contributions (and it’s easier to save for these things because of the other reasons on this list). Also, a couple will be able to choose among the health insurance options available to each of them, ensuring that married couples are much more likely to wind up with a great health insurance plan.
Finally, Social Security, Medicare, disability, and veterans benefits can be transferred between spouses, and there are often survivor benefits. In other words, if you’re married and your spouse dies, you’re often eligible to receive at least some of the benefits due to your deceased spouse.
There’s also a financial flip side: ending a marriage via divorce is often quite costly. Divorces aren’t cheap and have real negative financial consequence for the people involved.
On a personal note, I find that being married is (in part) kind of like having a financial advisor and life coach at home all the time. Whenever I need to talk through a financial issue, she’s there and we can go through it together, shining two sets of eyes on the same issue and often catching things and coming up with ideas that the other would not.
Clearly, having a healthy marriage or other form of long term relationship is financially valuable, but it can also be quite challenging to keep it healthy. It takes a lot of work. Here are five low cost strategies I use for maintaining and improving my own marital life.
Strategy #1 – Accept and Forgive Imperfection
Your parter is wildly imperfect. So are you. If you expect your partner to be perfect, all you’re going to get is a lot of disappointment. If you get upset with your partner being imperfect, all you’re going to get is a lot of arguing.
The best thing you can do is learn to accept the vast majority of your partner’s imperfections and forgive them. Learn how to live with them.
It’s okay to ask your partner to change a thing or two that really bothers you, but if it begins to turn into an endless cycle of trying to make that person change, two things will happen, and both of them are bad.
First, your partner is likely to start resenting you, whether you see it or not. Your partner will feel like you’ve gone from loving them to actively rejecting who they are with constant demands of change. That’s not something that leads to a positive relationship.
Second, you’re actually likely to not like your partner as much, either. Remember, you committed your partner for who he or she is, so if you incessantly demand that your partner changes for you, you’re turning that partner into someone you don’t actually want.
The best solution is to, rather than change your partner, let your partner be. If there’s one or two extremely egregious things that get on your nerves, you can ask that your partner work on those things, but expect your partner to ask you to work on some things too (in fact, you should ask your partner what they would like you to change), and keep that number small. Meanwhile, work on accepting the other rough edges. Some of the other strategies will help with this.
Strategy #2 – Know how your partner feels loved – and act on it
Different people feel love in different ways, and feeling loved is a very key part of maintaining a long term healthy relationship. The trick, of course, is that your partner may feel love in a way that’s different than how you feel love, so showing your partner love in a way that works for you might not actually click with your partner and vice versa.
Thus, if you want a healthy relationship, figure out how your partner feels love, act on it, and guide your partner a little towards how you feel loved.
The key is to act on it with consistency. When you figure out how your partner feels love, go out of your way to take care of that.
While it’s not perfect, the book The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman is a really strong place for starting to figure this out. That book identifies five ways that people feel love – receiving gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service (devotion), and physical touch. Most people feel love via two of those things and the other three matter little to them. Figure out which two matter to your partner and then actively make those two “languages” a part of your life with them.
For example, for me, the two that really stand out are acts of service and physical touch. I feel loved when Sarah is close to me, and I feel loved when she goes out of her way to do something for me. The others are nice, but I don’t feel unloved if she doesn’t affirm me with words or give me gifts (beyond a small thoughtful one that’s more of “I went out of my way to find this” which is more of a “going out of my way to do this” kind of thing). Sarah’s my best friend and I enjoy spending quality time with her, but I don’t feel unloved if she’s busy with her projects.
Sarah, on the other hand, seems to feel love from quality time and acts of service. The other three are important to her, but they’re not how she seems to really feel love.
Thus, a lot of our marriage involves us doing little things for each other that go above and beyond the normal routine. The biggest thing we both do for each other is that we’ll step up and take on the other person’s usual chores when the other person is having a bit of a rough time, and it really clicks for both of us.
Strategy #3 – Consistently Express the Love
It is incredibly easy for a marriage to slip into a very comfortable state where little gestures go from being gestures of love to being routine to being less passionate to being forgotten. When you first fell in love, you may have greeted each other with a romantic embrace and kiss, but after years, your presence is barely acknowledged. That can easily wear down a relationship and make a person feel completely unappreciated and unloved.
The point? Once you know what it is that makes your partner feel loved, make it a very consistent part of life – but don’t make it routine. Vary it up a little.
For example, if your partner likes to be touched, then give your partner an embrace whenever you see your partner for the first time. Start sitting next to your partner on the couch when you watch a movie or read together. Make an effort to be intimate more often, even if it’s a bit more often than you might choose, and initiate it sometimes. The key is to do those things consistently and with some variety.
If your partner thrives on words of affirmation, work on finding different things about them that are worthy of admiration and appreciation and express that appreciation and admiration in different ways. If your partner does something well, point out that you noticed it and you appreciated it. Compliment your partner and note the things he or she does well and brings to the table, particularly before they’re about to face a challenge. The key, again, is to do these things consistently and with some variety.
You don’t have to constantly remind yourself to do things like this – that would likely end up being fairly uncomfortable. Instead, just take a moment each day to think about what you can do to make your partner feel loved and act on that. It really doesn’t take much more than that. It just requires that consistency and enough variety so that it doesn’t become a tired routine. This should be a daily thing – if you’re not speaking love to your partner through action each day, your marriage will struggle.
Strategy #4 – Listen and Communicate
If your partner is struggling with something, listen. This doesn’t mean sitting there and waiting for them to take a breath so you can throw down advice. This doesn’t mean sitting there and zoning out while they drone on and on about that jerk from accounting. It means listening.
This is surprisingly hard to do. So often, we spend our conversational time thinking not about what the other person is saying, but about our own next response. What are we going to say next in this conversational thread? How will we make our next point?
Often, because of that, we completely miss what the other person is saying, and the whole thing becomes an exercise in talking past each other, in taking terns monologuing. That does little to build a relationship.
If you want to build and strengthen a relationship of any kind, listen. Understand what they’re saying.
A simple technique I often use is this: if someone is saying something longer than a sentence or two, my response to it is basically to summarize what I heard them saying. So, if my wife tells me a lengthy story about her experience teaching that day, I’ll say something like, “So, if I’m following you right, X happened, then Y happened, then Z?” This serves not only to confirm that I understood her story, but clearly tells her that I’m listening.
Beyond that, it’s important to communicate empathy and understanding, not just share your own ideas. I’ll often follow up confirmation of a story with an emotional response to that story. “That’s great!” or “That’s… pretty terrible!” I don’t tell her how to respond or anything unless she asks for advice because the truth is that most of the time people tell stories to relate things about themselves, not to acquire advice.
Doing this achieves several things at once.
One, I actually deeply understand what’s going on in my wife’s life. She’s telling me all about it. All I have to do is listen, or else gently prompt her to tell me about her day. Then I just listen, and in the act of summarizing, I absorb it and remember it. This enables me to touch back on a lot of things when we have later conversations.
Two, she feels appreciated because I’m genuinely listening and not just throwing in my thoughts. Her story is the center for me, not my response to the story. That creates a sense of being appreciated and valued.
Three, she’s much more likely to afford the same respect to me when I want to talk about something. She’s not going to just interject off the cuff solutions. She’ll just listen and understand and know me better, and that further cements our relationship.
Finally, this type of active listening and understanding makes it much easier to talk about hard things. It’s a lot easier to talk about a difficult subject if you know your partner will actively listen to you rather than barely paying attention and firing off knee-jerk responses. No one really wants to communicate through that.
Strategy #5 – Reflect on Appreciation, Not Criticism
When you’re thinking about your relationship, consciously make the decision to consider things that you appreciate rather than criticizing things you don’t like.
The part about overcoming criticism goes hand in hand with the first strategy of accepting your partner’s imperfections, but it goes beyond that. You simply shouldn’t waste your mental energy focusing and refocusing on the challenging things about that other person. It doesn’t do you any good. It doesn’t do your relationship any good.
Rather, accentuate the positives. You should regularly make a mental list – or even write it down – of things you appreciate about your partner. What are five things you really value about your partner? That’s a good question to ask yourself regularly – ideally, each day – and strive to come up with fresh answers. They can be big things or little things.
What you’ll find is that if you redirect your thoughts toward your partner’s positives, you’ll find a lot more to love in that partner and you’ll find your bond with your partner growing stronger rather than weaker. You’ll find that you notice the good things more and the bad things less.
Again, remember, your partner isn’t perfect and you should not expect perfection. You shouldn’t try to mold your partner into something he or she is not. Rather, try to look for the things you love in your partner rather than the things you’re not quite as enamored with.
This does not mean that you should accept genuine cruelty or abuse and just try to “overlook” it. Genuine cruelty and abuse is never acceptable. The purpose here is to overlook things like leaving one’s socks out in the bathroom or forgetting to make dinner once in a while and instead focusing on things like how she smells or how warm his embrace is.
Marriage takes work. It requires understanding how your partner feels love and doing what it takes to communicate that through action. It requires actually listening to your partner. It requires accepting that your partner isn’t perfect, but choosing to focus always on the positives rather than dwelling on the negatives. Those things aren’t always easy.
However, if you take the lead in doing things like this, your partner will feel genuine love and, given time, the person that you love will often come around to those things of their own accord.
Take the lead. Do these things. See what builds from it.
Not only will it help your marital life, a strong marital life enhances your financial life and almost every other aspect of your life.