It’s no secret that couples argue — studies show it occurs once every two weeks on average, in fact. Most of these spats are temporary conflicts — disagreements that can often be solved with an apology and a bit of sustained effort. But the arguments that last — the ones couples find hardest to resolve – -center around the almighty dollar. In fact, 38 percent of men and women in a recent national Harris Interactive poll for Men, Love & Sex say that money is the number-one cause of marital strife. And that’s well ahead of either of the distant-second hot-button subjects that cause friction: the division of household chores and the amount of sex in the relationship. Needless to say, it makes dollars — and sense — for you to get on the same spreadsheet page with your significant other. (Otherwise you can expect less sex and a lot more dirty dishes around the house heading into the new year … and who wants that?)
A lot of money problems stem from the fact that couples often have different financial goals — for example, she wants the granite countertops, he wants the flat screen. Or it comes from the lack of communication about what those goals are — one person is in charge of all bills, say, and the two rarely talk about anything beyond the month-to-month hits. Or it comes from the very major and basic life stress of making sure you have even enough money to pay bills, have some fun, provide for the kids, and avoid living in a refrigerator box upon retirement.
But this time of year can be especially contentious. It’s the time when we’re all inundated with a cycle that has money coming in (year-end bonus!) and money going out (have you seen the PlayStation 3 prices on eBay?). So that makes us all particularly on edge over the kind of jingle in your pocket, not on the sleigh.
Here are some tips to keep you from going mental over money:
Understand the male/female gift dichotomy. Men go for the wow gift — the gift that impresses, the gift with the big monetary outlay. But as baseball’s Yankees taught us, a big monetary investment doesn’t always produce the best results. Women, on the other hand, often go for creativity and thoughtfulness, which can sometimes be lost on those masters of short-attention-span: their husbands/boyfriends. To avoid conflict over gifts, men need to understand that the odd, quirky presents that women give truly express their hearts; and women need to understand that men deeply care, but their way of showing it might seem as though they’re substituting money for forethought. Or worse, their way of showing it involves a discussion with the clerk at the CVS, rather than the gem specialist at Tiffany’s.
Don’t let money become a control issue. If one person in the relationship makes significantly more bank than the other, one of two things typically happens. The person who makes the least is afraid to spend anything, because he or she feels like they don’t have a right to any of the money. Or that person will spend like crazy as a way to gain back some of the control they feel they’ve lost. To avoid these conflicts, set a budget for the both of you, and make sure each of you has access to holiday cash.
Don’t equate your financial worth with self-worth. Arguments about money over the holidays are aggravated because men tend to look at life like a stakes race — and they ride a whole lot taller in the saddle when they’re sitting on a nice fat wallet. In their minds, they feel they either have what it takes to stuff the stocking or they don’t. When a conflict arises, it helps if a woman expresses her appreciation of the value he’s already bringing to the relationship, aside from dollars. (And, guys, remember that money’s just one contribution to your coupledom, and not even the most important one. Your gifts should speak to the pillars of your relationship, not just the available funds line in the financial statement.) Since money problems are rarely about money–but rather fear, power, insecurity and the like–it pays to learn how to manage these bigger aspects first.