Everyone knows that couples have disagreements about money matters. But when you combine the practical challenges of money management with the complications of stepfamily living, money issues become volatile.
“I just don’t feel like his partner,” said Barbara. “Lloyd controls everything and I don’t even know how much we have nor do I contribute to investment decisions. It’s like the money is all his, just in case we don’t make it. It’s been that way from day one when he asked for a prenuptial agreement. How can I feel like his partner when I’m excluded from this part of his life?”
Sometimes money conflicts are about values or power and control; other times it is about fear. Barbara had access to all the money she and her children needed, and they were well cared for. However, in her heart, she didn’t feel that Lloyd was completely committed to her. His unwillingness to let her have some say in his material wealth was evidence to her of this struggle—especially since her husband didn’t have any problem sharing financial decisions with his first wife.
When money is paired with pain
In asking for more decision-making power regarding their money, what Barbara was really seeking was emotional security and a permanent commitment from her husband. Money issues in a stepfamily marriage are sometimes paired with pain from the past. They become a detriment to the present marriage when negative behavioral patterns are set in place.
Underlying Lloyd’s need for a prenuptial agreement and control over their finances was a ghost that haunted him with distrust, insecurity, and the fear of losing control. The only thing that kept him from growing increasingly anxious about his future was staying in control of the money and investments he brought into the marriage.
Besides, in his mind, his generosity toward Barbara and her children was more than enough provision. It shouldn’t matter to her, he thought, that her name wasn’t on the deed to the house or cars. But it did matter to Barbara, a lot.
Overcoming fear, risking trust, choosing commitment
The challenge for many step-couples is deciding whether fair will be defined through the lens of pain or hope. If decisions are being made through the lens of pain, then one or both will choose a path of self-preservation (withholding assets is a way of withholding yourself). If the decisions and the relationship are viewed through a lens of hope, risks and an investment in the marriage are likely taken. This requires trust.
In our book, The Smart Stepfamily Marriage, David Olson and I review five stages of trust previously identified by Patricia Schiff Estess (in her own book, Money Advice for Your Successful Remarriage).
1. The “Rose-colored glasses” stage.
In those first romantic moments, money talk seems crass or unimportant because the strength of love “will handle everything” (naiveté) or because couples believe there will be no money conflicts (ignorance).
2. The “Don’t rock the boat” stage.
Feelings of resentment or anger surface. Frequently thoughts such as, “Why should I resent his paying alimony? I knew about it before we got married,” or “I can’t stand her cheapness when it comes to gift-giving” aren’t voiced for fear that any stress would put too much pressure on the fragile new union.
3. The “Lay it on the table” stage.
Couples painfully express their concerns to each other, feeling it’s okay to be honest, to argue about spending priorities and to speak candidly about their feelings, frustrations, and fears surrounding finances. A foundation of trust is being laid, albeit roughly.
4. The “Getting it together” stage.
The couple has arrived at a mutually agreed upon lifestyle and has established an effective method of handling finances and making financial decisions. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve commingled funds. Just that they have agreed on contributions—both monetary contributions and contributions of time—and that they have a system in place for managing both jointly owned and separately owned property.
5. The “Achieving stability” stage.
The couple reels in control of finances. Despite the ultimate instability of anyone’s financial position, they now feel comfortable adjusting their goals or spending patterns as circumstances require. Their perspectives are integrated. They can handle change.
In addition to integrating their daily and practical financial patterns, did you notice what else is growing beneath the surface? Trust. Each and every stage requires a choice to risk the unknown as the two come closer in heart and mind. But eventually the choice to risk gives birth to confidence and trust. And every couple needs that.
Stepfamilies taking action
Building financial integrity and trust into your relationship is a must, and so is agreeing to a system of money management. Most stepfamily couples choose one of the following:
- “One-pot” couples have joint ownership over all of their financial accounts (including savings and investments).
- “Two-pot” couples divide monies into his and hers. Sometimes this is reflective of what each brought into the marriage or the income each produces, and sometimes it represents the different obligations (e.g., child support to an ex-spouse) and debts each holds.
- “Three-pot” couples have his, hers, and theirs accounts from which they pay shared bills and expenditures.
The system itself doesn’t seem to make a significant difference in the level of couple satisfaction. What does matter is whether you agree on the system and share similar values about spending, saving, and how family members are provided for. Any system can work, but it has to be agreeable to both.
More than ever, church leaders recognize the importance of biblical advice and training for couples regarding finances. Quality programs from Crown Financial Ministries and Dave Ramsey, for example, are available for churches. However, be sure to take the training a step further with stepfamily couples. Address issues such as alimony, child support, inheritance once a biological parent dies, investments, which one-two-or three-pot system of money management couples will utilize, and the need to change deeds, titles, beneficiaries to insurance, car titles, house deeds, and wills after the wedding.
Adapted from The Smart Stepfamily Marriage by Ron L. Deal and David H. Olson. Published by Bethany House, © 2010.