Ask any long-wed couple and they’ll tell you making a marriage work takes much more than love. Lasting marriages are built upon a foundation of trust, loyalty, respect and mutual goals. Most couples recognize this on emotional, physical and even spiritual levels; however, many fail to apply the same consideration to their finances.
When spouses do not properly manage finances, struggle to talk to one another about money or cannot be honest about their individual spending, tension builds. In some cases, ongoing tension leads to separation or divorce.
Read on to discover some of the most common ways finances cause rifts between married couples, and learn how you can prevent money matters from chipping away at your marriage.
1. Couples Don’t Talk About Financial Stress
Stress sets the stage for unhappiness, and finances are a big-time contributor to stress. In a survey by SunTrust Bank, 35% of married couples named money as the leading cause of relationship stress.
What makes financial stress worse, though, is that many couples don’t talk openly to one another about their money burdens.
“Talking about money is difficult for most couples because we usually don’t grow up in our families having positive discussions about money,” said Melissa Divaris Thompson, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in New York City. “Money is something that can very quickly and easily go underground and not [get] talked about. It’s uncomfortable, and most families feel it’s too private to share even with adult children.”
Tip: Ease Into the Conversation or Find an Advisor
Couples who do not currently talk about stress as it relates to finances should allow themselves to gradually open the discussion, rather than diving fully in at once, Divaris Thompson said. When you talk about money a little bit every day, your conversations will get easier and feel more normal.
Additionally, couples can meet with an objective third party, such as a financial advisor. A professional will guide your conversations, which will help prevent flare-ups and major disagreements.
“Meet with a financial planner or advisor. Sit down and talk openly about your financial picture and how you both want to grow,” Divaris Thompson said.
2. One (or Both) Spouses Secretly Spends
According to a recent TD Bank survey, 32% of Americans said that they are keeping a financial secret from their partner. The most common financial secrets involve a big purchase (40% of those who have a secret), followed by significant credit card debt (18%) and a secret bank account (13%).
While some couples agree not to share bank accounts or credit cards, keeping their own finances largely separate, any purchase that could significantly affect you both or your family is important to share. If you’re going out of your way to hide purchases, your relationship could really suffer.
“To hide purchases from your partner sets up a dynamic to not be open and honest about your financial choices,” Divaris Thompson said. “It creates distrust in the relationship and breaks down your integrity. Your partner is also then set up to become the ‘financial police,’ and this will build resentment in your relationship.”
Tip: Stop the Secrets
If your spouse is showing signs of lying about their spending, you should confront them in a non-combative way. If you aren’t confident that you can keep your cool during a discussion, seek the help of an objective third party, such as a therapist.
If you are concealing or lying about purchases, you need to end the habit pronto. Should the temptation to hide arise, ask yourself why you feel the need to not disclose the information, and pinpoint any underlying issues in need of addressing.
3. Some Husbands Can’t Handle Their Wives Making More Money
As of 2020, 21% of women said they make more than their partners, and 26% said they made the same amount, a TD Ameritrade survey found. While women’s salaries have changed in recent decades, societal perceptions of money-related gender roles have not evolved as quickly. As a result, some men struggle emotionally when their wives make more money.
“In our society, men have historically been the breadwinners,” Divaris Thompson said. “Being in a heterosexual couple where the woman makes more money can set up a dynamic that may be uncomfortable for a man. Usually, partners feel that whoever makes more money, even on a subconscious level, may hold more power.”
Meanwhile, women continue to do a significantly larger share of household chores, even when they make a higher income. Women, on average, spend more than twice as much time house cleaning and preparing food, and over three times as much time doing laundry compared with men, according to a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report. If such a setup contributes to resentment, exhaustion and heightened stress, money-related tension and divorce risks might run even higher.
Tip: Tell Your Partner How You Feel
If you are a married male who struggles to accept that your wife makes more money than you, talk about your feelings with your partner, a therapist or both. Awareness alone can go a long way toward salvaging relationship satisfaction, and it sets the stage for positive action, such as more evenly sharing the housework load.
4. Couples Live Beyond Their Means, Fueling Anxiety
No matter what your financial means — or who makes more money — overspending is one of the reasons marriages fail.
“One of the biggest red flags is debt,” said Shelly-Ann Eweka, senior director of financial planning strategy for TIAA. “I know one family where the husband found a credit card statement that showed his wife’s discretionary spending far exceeded what they had discussed. The dishonesty upset him, of course, and he realized how much her spending would hurt his credit rating and his financial goals.”
For couples, this is problematic on multiple levels, according to Divaris Thompson. “When you live beyond your means, there is always a level of anxiety associated with that,” she said. “Whether you know the credit card bill is coming soon or wonder constantly if you can cover your bills, this can lead to feelings of unease.”
The greater your level of anxiety, the greater your risk of feeling disconnected from your partner, particularly if he or she is the bigger spender.
Tip: Create a Plan Together
To keep overspending from dismantling your marriage, Divaris Thompson suggested sharing your fears and anxious feelings with your partner, and then creating a plan together for positive change. Develop a budget, explore creative ways to save funds to better stay within your means and check in regularly to hold each other accountable.
“It’s wise for couples to periodically review each other’s credit card and financial statements,” Eweka said. “If you notice a lot of purchases or late payment fees, it’s important to ask questions and understand why.”
5. Couples Spend Too Much Time Trying To Make Money
Maintaining a strong marriage takes work, time and energy. If you spend nearly all of your time and energy at the office, you won’t have much left over for keeping the relationship spark alive. It should come as no surprise, then, that overwork can fuel the likelihood of divorce.
“In a solid relationship, you want to feel valued and a priority,” Divaris Thompson said. “For a partner that prioritizes work, this can lead to feelings of resentment and anger in the relationship.”
Tip: Set Clear Expectations
To help keep overwork from undermining your relationship, Divaris Thompson said couples must find balance.
“Make sure you both agree on what that picture looks like between work/life balance,” she said.
6. Couples Argue About Money
Some experts believe that spousal arguments about money are the leading predictor of divorce. One of the most comprehensive studies on the subject drew on data collected from more than 4,500 couples and showed that, regardless of debt, income and net worth, money arguments were the biggest divorce red flag.
Not only do money issues frequently come up in arguments, but they tend to lead to more intense and frequent fights as well — understandably so, said Divaris Thompson.
“Financial issues lend themselves to more frequent or intense arguments because money is usually not a subject that couples are that upfront, honest or proactive about discussing,” she said. “This can lead to blowups down the road.”
Tip: Have Ongoing Conversations About Your Finances
Improving your communication habits around money and addressing any issues head-on to prevent arguments — ideally sooner rather than later — can save you and your spouse a lot of tension, paving the way for longer-lasting relationship bliss.
7. Partners Have Different Spending Habits or Priorities
“Many financial red flags should concern couples. It can be everything from spending priorities to the actual spending,” Eweka said. “I’ve been happily married for 23 years, but at first, my husband often preferred to spend instead of save, and I wanted to save and invest.”
Not addressing these different attitudes and behaviors or reaching some sort of compromise can lead to resentment and issues down the road.
Tip: Keep Some Finances Separate
“One potential solution could be for each spouse to contribute to a joint account, but also open individual accounts,” Eweka said. “The couples can decide how much gets allocated to their combined account and how much each person can keep for themselves.”
This allows the spender to spend — but only up to a point that it doesn’t affect joint financial needs and goals.
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Gabrielle Olya contributed to the reporting for this article.