The Money Laws of Marriage: How to Prevent Declaring Emotional Bankruptcy

Money Laws of Marriage

Does this sound familiar?

Kris is an accountant and Sam is an architect. They’re trying to create a budget together.

Kris: We just need a realistic budget to stick to.

Sam: I do stick to it, but unexpected things keep happening.

Kris: You have to plan for the unexpected. Let’s go back and look at the checks and the credit cards statements, and see where our money is going.

Sam: You never show me the respect that you show your accounting clients.

Kris: I respect you, but I’m upset that you can’t control your spending. How can we save that way?

Sam: I do control my spending, but I have to get things our family needs.

Kris: We don’t need a 60” TV or 16 knives. We don’t NEED all of this crap.

Sam: You never understand or care about my needs.

Kris: I work really hard for our stuff. I do understand.

Sam: I work too. What do you think I do 40-hours a week? Pick my nose?

Kris: I know you work, and I do care, I just want us to be smart about our money.

Sam: It’s not about being smart, it’s about love. You’ve never understood that.

Kris: Not it’s not. Love is about love. Money is about money. That doesn’t even make sense.

Sam: We’re building a life together, one you clearly don’t value as much as the money in the bank.

Kris: You build a life with how you use the money in the bank.

Sam: Thanks for the lecture, Professor Money. Do you see what I’m talking about when I say you don’t respect me?

If you and your partner have similar arguments about finances, you are in good company. There is no easy way for a couple to go through life without butting heads over money. As you can see  with Sam and Kris, nothing has been resolved. It feels like the real issue is not being addressed.

That’s because arguments about money aren’t about money. They are full of power and meaning that make discussions about money more emotional than the situation seems to warrant.

If you asked 100 people what is “enough” money to be rich, you’d soon realize that what is “enough” for one person is completely inadequate for another. That’s because money is not about how much one has, but about how much one has relative to what one believes is enough.

What blocks Kris and Sam, and maybe even your marriage, is not money. It’s the meaning we give money.

Meaning, Money, and Marriage

If I asked you how much you paid for your home, you could probably tell me without hesitation. If I asked you how much you spent at the grocery store four days ago, you would probably need to think about it.

That’s because your memory is designed to focus on the significance and meaning of events in your life rather than the details.

This makes sense. Memory is biologically pricey. Rewiring our neurons and synapses costs a lot of energy. It is nearly impossible to remember every detail about every event in our lives, so our brain “cheats” when it organizes information.

If you’re 43 years old, that means you have 43 years of complicated life experiences with a lot of unimportant micro-experiences, such as buying a sandwich. If you were to analyze the details of every single experience before you decided something, you’d be paralyzed by analysis.

So your brain cheats by deriving an overall meaning of an experience and then fills in the facts to create a narrative that aligns with that meaning.

This is why Sam feels so disrespected when Kris brings up the issue of budgeting. To him, it’s not just her trying to control his spending. It’s her taking away the feelings of love money gives him. Feelings he has felt for most of his life.

Sam’s mind does this because his memory, like yours, is designed to create little cause and effect stories to support the meaning we get from our experiences.

By doing this, we simplify our conflicts around money and we start reacting instead of responding. Sam starts accusing Kris of disrespecting him and reacting to her complaints. Instead he should listen to her complaints so he can understand why she feels that way.

If we were to simplify the meanings of money throughout our entire lives into cause and effect stories, then what we are left with is a simple if X happens, then I feel Y. This is what we call a “money law.”

The Money Laws of Marriage

Money laws are the things that must happen for you to feel financially secure and happy in your marriage. They tend to follow a simple if-then framework.

Money Law Examples:

  • If James saves $1,000 this month, then he truly cares about the financial future of our marriage.
  • If Steve takes me out to an expensive dinner on Friday, then he loves me.
  • If Kim books our two-week vacation, then she cares about my well being.

Broken Money Law Examples:

  • If Sam doesn’t stick to the budget, then he doesn’t care about my needs.
  • If Tom buys another “toy” instead of taking me on a vacation, then I’m not valuable to him.
  • If Susan spends another $300 shopping instead of saving for our kid’s college, then she doesn’t care about our children’s education.

As you can see, money conflicts are far more meaningful than the dollar value we give them. For some of us, it’s about love and connection. Maybe for you it’s about power and significance. Maybe for someone else it’s about personal growth, or contribution to society. We fight about money because we don’t feel understood by our partners.

Understanding Your Money Laws

If you can identify your money laws, you can instantly help your partner understand you better and improve the quality of your relationship.

If you take time to understand your partner’s money laws,  you will be able to turn the destructive fights about money in your marriage into a constructive way to grow closer to one another.

What Are Your Money Laws?

Want to learn which money laws are bankrupting your marriage? Below are three steps that will help you use money conflicts to deepen your emotional connection.

Step 1: Understand Your Personal Meaning of Money

Throughout life, we pick up subtle and large meanings of how money should be used.

By understanding your hidden meanings to money, you can really help your partner understand why certain things bother you. You can do this by downloading the Meaning of Money In Marriage by subscribing below. Go through the list of items and check the meanings that resonate most with you.

Step 2: Understand Your Partner’s Meaning of Money

Have your partner fill out the checklist. Sit down and share stories about why you have those meanings around money.

Step 3: Create Three Money Laws Each

What do you need to feel financially secure in your marriage? Come up with three money laws and share them with your partner. Examples include:

  • If you take me on a date every two weeks, then I will feel loved.
  • If I contribute to the Red Cross, then I feel helpful to those less fortunate.
  • If I invest in a personal trainer, then I feel sexy and will want to make love to you.

Use money conflicts in your marriage to invest in each other.

This article was originally published on The Gottman Relationship Blog.

The Money Laws of Marriage: How to Prevent Declaring Emotional Bankruptcy