by Howard Dayton
While I was at work one day I received a text message from my neighbor, Carlos Garcia, asking to schedule an urgent meeting with him and his wife, Elsa. The next morning we all met over coffee, and they described their predicament.
Carlos explained, “We run into problems whenever we try to discuss money and how we’re going to manage it. We both know we’ve got to get beyond this because of our financial situation, but also for the sake of our marriage.”
Carlos had been raised by parents who never discussed money in front of their children. He tended to withdraw and refuse to talk if he sensed conflict.
In contrast, Elsa’s parents constantly fought over finances. She reacted angrily and aggressively to problems, especially when Carlos would not discuss their money situation at all.
“I’m so glad you recognize the problem,” I responded. “You can’t have a great marriage and unity in your finances without developing some great communication. You’ve heard the saying ‘Every household divided against itself will not stand,’ haven’t you?”
“Sure,” Elsa answered. “Abraham Lincoln, right?”
“Actually, Jesus said it first; it’s right here in the Bible.” I showed them Matthew 12:25. “The key for not being divided is to communicate well with each other and to know what God says about money and marriage. Would you like to explore some principles to help you do that better?”
Carlos and Elsa both nodded.
“Elsa,” I began. “What do you think are the biggest challenges Carlos faces in being able to interact with you?”
“There are two areas he could improve on,” she said, giving her husband a quick glance. First, he doesn’t listen to me. He tunes me out whenever I want to talk about money, and this frustrates me. And second, he doesn’t really tell me what he’s thinking.”
“Is that right?” I asked Carlos.
He sheepishly nodded his head. “I can see where she gets that idea.”
The following communication principles helped Elsa and Carlos, and they can help you too.
1. Listen. The biggest step we can take to improve our communication with our spouse is to improve our listening skills. If we want our spouse to freely share with us, we must give undivided attention—and that takes some effort! Maintaining eye contact may be unnerving, and the temptation to jump in while our partner is talking is really hard to resist. So often we don’t really listen, but we’re thinking of what kind of quick solution we can present as soon as the other person stops talking! Respectful listening is the key to understanding your spouse’s feelings and needs.
Elsa and Carlos were listening intently as I talked about these principles.
“When your partner really listens to you,” I continued, “you feel cared for and understood. Many couples talk at each other about money, but few talk in a way that allows both to safely reveal their true feelings.”
I told them that many conflicts result from our mistaken assumptions about what others really mean. We need to be asking as many questions as necessary until we understand the other’s viewpoint. Asking questions is also a tangible way of demonstrating you care and want to understand what your spouse feels. And you want to ask patiently, of course, without interrupting. As you’re working on your listening skills, you’re building a foundation for cooperation in problem solving.
2. Say what you mean. “Did you know that some people are afraid to expose their real feelings, even to their spouse?” I asked the Garcias. “Someone might say, ‘I don’t want to use a budget because they are a hassle,’ when what they really mean is, ‘I’m afraid a budget will stop me from spending what I want.’”
I added that sharing honest feelings enables us to identify differences so we can talk through them. Doing so creates the kind of atmosphere it takes to grow a healthier marriage.
“Now, Carlos, we’ve heard what Elsa feels are the biggest challenges in communicating with you. Now, what are your biggest challenges communicating with Elsa?” I asked.
“Well,” he said. “It just seems like she wants to talk about money when I’m exhausted and don’t feel like dealing with it.”
3. Pick the right time and place. I had to think that one through for a moment. Then a verse from Scripture came to my mind. “In Ecclesiastes 3 it says, ‘There is a time to be silent and a time to speak,’” I said. “Turn off your phones, leave off the TV, and get away from any other distractions. Pick a time when you’re not tired or stressed—certainly not just after paying the bills! Be willing to say, ‘I agree that this is important, but we need to wait until later to talk about it. Let’s do it tomorrow after dinner.’ And by the way, make sure you talk in person—don’t try to solve conflicts with e-mail or by texting. Neither of these allows you to observe each other’s body language and heart, which is a huge part of communication.”
Carlos and Elsa both nodded their agreement.
4. Be honest with one another. “Anything else, Carlos?” I asked. “Any other challenges you have about communicating with Elsa?”
“Well, this is kind of touchy, but she has the habit of buying things—clothes and other stuff—and hiding them from me. I feel like she’s keeping secrets from me and I just can’t trust what she’ll do with our money.”
Carlos and Elsa’s situation is not uncommon. Unfortunately, nearly 55 percent of couples hide financial assets from each other [USA Today, April 28, 2006]. Some people think that deceiving their mate over spending or financial decisions is nothing more than a harmless secret, an innocent white lie, but it is deadly to the relationship.
I told Elsa that “one of the most damaging things you can do to your marriage is to be dishonest about money.”
5. Leave the baggage. Sometimes our reluctance to talk about finances—or our hesitation to be open and honest about what we’re doing with money—comes from patterns in our families as we were growing up. Further, if one or both of you have been previously married, there is a tendency to impose on your new spouse some of the emotional baggage of your former mate. If your previous spouse spent too much or was dishonest with money or was not a good provider—do not presume your new partner will act similarly. Set aside any residue you have from your parents or from a previous marriage. Be careful not to distrust unfairly your new mate because of what happened in an earlier marriage.
6. Go on “money dates.” I suggest that married couples take a weekly money date—it’s something you can do at home or wherever you choose. Select an appropriate time during the week to focus on your finances by praying together, reviewing your income and spending for the week, and by celebrating the progress the Lord has enabled you to make.
These weekly money dates are vital because they establish the habit of regular financial conversations when there is no crisis. Many couples don’t begin a conversation about money unless a problem has surfaced and the panic button has already been punched.
Tension can reach the boiling point in a hurry when blame and defensiveness take over. That’s when it gets personal and hurtful, with a couple screaming at each other instead of working to resolve the problem.
7. Pray together. Praying together should be the first thing you do on your money date. Jesus makes this remarkable promise in Matthew 18:19-20: “If two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”
When a couple prays together about their finances, they learn what is important to their mate, and they invite the God of the universe to be personally involved with their earning and spending.
8. Enjoy humor. There are times when we can become so consumed with problems, especially with finances, that we need to remind ourselves to lighten up. And enjoying the fun things of life and having a sense of humor certainly help us keep focus.
God’s gift of humor enables couples to share real-life incidents as well as private jokes that refresh a marriage. Healthy humor and shared experiences often help couples relieve stress and lighten communication.
9. Seek your spouse’s counsel. The Bible tells us it is important to seek advice. Proverbs 19:20 says, “Listen to advice and accept instruction, and in the end you will be wise.” The first person to consult is your spouse. Frankly, in the beginning of our marriage it was hard for me to seek Bev’s counsel in financial matters. After all, she had no formal financial training. But I began to see that her wise advice saved us a great deal of money.
Women tend to be gifted with a wonderfully sensitive and intuitive nature that is usually very accurate. Men tend to focus on the facts. Couples need each other to achieve the proper balance for an optimal decision. I believe the Lord honors the wife’s role as helper to her husband. Many times the Lord communicates most clearly to the husband through his wife.
It’s important for husbands and wives to agree on financial decisions, because they both will experience the consequences. Even if their choice proves to be disastrous, their agreement protects their relationship by leaving no grounds for an “I told you so” response. When a couple seeks each other’s advice, they actually are communicating, “I love you. I respect you. I value your insight.”
10: Set goals. Setting goals together is indispensable for great communication. I recommend that a couple take a weekend away to enjoy each other and identify their long-term goals. What do they most want to accomplish as individuals and as a couple? Discovering dreams and setting goals help you learn more about your mate and how to prioritize your spending.
Effective goal setting begins by identifying long-term goals and then establishing shorter-term goals as intermediate steps. For example, if you know your ten-year goals, it will be easier for you to determine the goals you will need to accomplish this year.
For a husband and wife who are both followers of Jesus Christ, this is a marvelous opportunity to invite the direction and counsel of God’s Holy Spirit. James says, “If you want to know what God wants you to do, ask him, and he will gladly tell you, for he is always ready to give a bountiful supply of wisdom to all who ask him; he will not resent it” (James 1:5 TLB).