by Lisa Derr
It’s 3:00 a.m. and Natalie and Jim are awake and angry. Jim is sitting up in bed. “That’s it. We’re going to have separate checking accounts!” She whispers fiercely, “I don’t understand why you are so upset. I told you that I saved over a thousand dollars!” Forgetting his whisper, he yelled, “What do you mean save? You just emptied our checking account and I have to pay the mortgage! You always do this. You’re just like your mother!” She glared at him and hissed, “Stop it or you’ll wake up the kids. I suppose we should be more like your father. His idea of ‘hosting’ our groom’s dinner was buying a whole case of beer.” She paused briefly and then spit out, “You’re so pathetic.” He sighed deeply. It always ended this way. Without a word he went downstairs to sleep on the couch.
Money is one of the most difficult conversations a married couple can have. Natalie and Jim love each other. Yet they heard themselves saying things they knew they’d regret later. Instead of problem solving, they were escalating their conflict. Why does it happen? How can we stop repeating such a pattern and work on financial issues?
Interestingly, the process of escalation takes a fairly predictable path. If we recognize it when it is happening, we can interrupt the pattern and begin problem solving. As people become more frustrated and angry, certain physiological changes take place without our being consciously aware of them. Our heart rate increases (even pounding), our breath becomes quick and shallow, our volume and even rate of speech increases. Brows become furrowed and lips pursed. Some people even become flushed and blotchy. We stop listening and are quicker to interrupt.
Our subconscious, which controls our autonomous system, often recognizes and responds to our anger before we are consciously aware of it. For example, have you ever seen an argument where one person said, “I don’t see why you’re so angry” only to hear a thunderous bellow, “I’M NOT ANGRY!” The conscious mind is not even aware of the intense emotion to which the unconscious has already loudly responded. Some people describe escalation as a feeling of being “taken over like a tidal wave.” But we are not as helpless as we feel. It takes a significant amount of cooperation to have an argument. We can choose not to.
The first step to reduce escalation is to consciously recognize our own physiological signs – the pounding heart, shallow breath, the quicker speech and louder voice. Only then can we interrupt the pattern. Often our spouse will recognize it sooner. This is where couples can choose to help each other. When you are calm, ask each other “What do you want me to say to you when I notice that you are getting angry?” We often respond better when we recognize our own words. Any short calming phrase you choose will do. (Can we slow down? It seems like you’re getting upset. Let’s take a break. Remember we agreed to problem solve. I notice you’re getting louder, etc.)
That is our opportunity. Once we’re aware, break off the conversation. Stop and count to 10. Take five deep, down-to-your-toes breaths. If that doesn’t work, explain, I’m too angry to communicate well and I need to take a break.” If you have to physically leave, then (as in the Nike ad) “just do it.” Make sure it is at least 20 minutes.** Timing is also critical. Look at the situation. Are you exhausted or have you been drinking? Then 20 minutes will not help. It is almost impossible to have a thoughtful discussion in either of those situations. Pick another time to talk.
If Jim tells Natalie that he wants to take a break but she ignores him, not only will they have another useless argument, she will have additionally betrayed his trust by failing to work with him as she promised. If one partner promises to problem solve but repeatedly ignores the signals, you might need professional help. That is absolutely the case where the escalation leads to violence.
What happens if we continue to escalate? The focus of the financial problem will be lost as the couple begins to bring up other issues, generalize (“You always do this”) and attack each other. Increased escalation can even include other people as Natalie and Jim discuss their financial problems and frustrations with friends and families. Negative extended family involvement only adds to the problem. In severe cases, family involvement can become “Tribal Warfare.”
On the other hand, if Natalie and Jim slow down, lower their voices and take a needed break, they can begin problem solving and just as important, build trust between them. Assuming that Natalie and Jim start recognizing and responding to each other’s signals how do we work on the financial issues?
One of the biggest mistakes we make is to begin with the solution. Jim said, “We’re going to have separate checking accounts!” Natalie felt defensive. The first step in discussing a financial concern or problem is to bring up your concern in a calm and nonjudgmental way (even when you believe the other is at fault.)
Jim could have asked Natalie for her cooperation in helping him solve the problem. “Natalie, can we talk? I feel overwhelmed. I am supposed to pay the mortgage tomorrow and there is no money in the checkbook. What should we do and how can we avoid this from happening in the future? I need your help.” Do you have to plan ahead on what to say? Yes. Does if feel artificial? Yes. Does it work? Absolutely.
Starting with the problem or concern does more than just engender cooperation. Natalie might just actually have a better solution. What if she had just accepted Jim’s solution and created individual checking accounts? Two checkbooks do not double a couple’s cash flow. It might solve Jim’s embarrassment by forcing Natalie to call the bank on her own overdrafts but if the overspending continues, they will increase their consumer debt and eventually may even lose their home.
Perhaps you find yourself saying, “That sounds great but my spouse wouldn’t care about my needs regardless of how I ask.” First, check out that assumption by trying. Second, if that assumption is true, then ask yourself if this is the type of communication that you want to continue. Let your spouse know in a nonjudgmental and compassionate way that you need to make some changes and suggest counseling. Continuing escalating arguments will never solve those problems but only makes them worse. Several studies have shown that children who are exposed to constant marital conflict (whether married or divorced) have significantly higher problems with truancy, delinquency and drug use than parents who communicate well.
Another mistake people make when discussing money is the belief that “my views are rational and logical.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. Most of us have strong emotional feelings associated with money that we need to address first before having a thoughtful discussion with our spouse. Many of these feelings are associated with how we were brought up but were rarely openly discussed. As such, they remain powerful but hidden motivators.
For example, Natalie learned that her own mother used shopping as a way to make her feel better when she was lonely or depressed. Natalie feels better when she can use money to buy things. She often rationalizes her purchases by purchasing things “on sale” and saying how much she has saved or buying things for the children rather than herself. Jim’s parents suffered through the depression and thereafter saved every penny they ever earned often foregoing vacations. Jim inherited his parent’s fear of never having enough money. He passes up the opportunity to spend vacation time with his family or to make reasonable investments that carry even modest risk. He becomes incensed when Natalie overspends but eventually gives up going downstairs after an argument.
As part of problem solving, both people have to first separately examine their own attitudes and feelings. Finishing sentences is a great way to start. Answer the sentences, “Money makes me feel . . . .” “When I spend money . . . ” “Saving money . . . ” Investigate childhood feelings by writing, “When it comes to money, my parents always . . . ” When discussing your feelings with each other, remember that both people have to agree to really listen to the other without making a negative judgment. When you’ve finished your feelings, then start with the specific financial issues. As each mentions a concern, the other spouse might have a different problem as well. Agree to put all issues down on a list and discuss them one at a time. Both could also agree to write down the benefits and negatives of each possible solution without refusing any possibility. Remember to be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day. After you have put out fires, you can have rational discussions that allow you to plan for your future (since no one else will).
While not the preferred option, Jim and Natalie borrowed money from Jim’s parents to make the mortgage payment. They agreed to pay them back at $75 per month and Natalie agreed not to spend over $50 at any time on clothes unless they had discussed and agreed upon the need for it. They also agreed to put $200 a month into a savings account. Once the level reached $4,000, they agreed to split the proceeds with $1,500 in a family vacation and the rest into a very low risk mutual fund. When the $75 per month debt was paid off, they agreed to continue that by starting automatic deposit into the mutual fund.
As we increase our ability to solve financial problems and do financial planning, we will feel more in control of our lives, and just as important, we will teach our children how to actually solve problems in a healthy way. Perhaps that is the best outcome of all.
**Several studies have recommended that is the minimum time that it takes to physiologically convert from the intense emotion of our lower brain (in the lower back of the our skull) to the rational problem solving frontal lobes of our higher brain.