Awhile ago, I worked with a couple who had this conversation in a session:
“You know, sweetie, I decided that paying only $3500. for the bike I want would be a great deal! The electric bikes run about $5000 to $6000 average! We could finance it easily with your excellent credit, or just buy it outright. And we could ride up hills on and off road! It would be so handy and fun!”
“$4000 for a bike that doesn’t even require any exercise? Do you think I’m made of money?! We have loads of other, more important expenses coming up! And, why are you leaning so happily into old age? What’s wrong with using some muscles – and paying a fraction of the price – on my dime?!”
Guess who was the primary earner in this marriage? And guess who got their way…
Historically, husbands frequently provided the income and wives stayed home running the household and dealing with the kids. Although wives often managed the checkbook, their husbands often maintained control over the spending choices made. It was an efficient but unequal system in terms of power.
Today, spousal roles are usually more blurred, with both partners earning an income and both sharing household and child rearing roles. What often remains the same however, is the fact that the higher earner generally has more say about what and when money is spent on based on their own assignment of value to purchases – (hence the electric bike discussion).
Because fluid sharing of power seems so vital to modern day marriages, I encourage couples to look at their habits or practices that create a power imbalance. It often is most obvious in this financial realm where the perception of value to an expense gets more votes and credence from the top earner.
So, instead of arguing endlessly about what’s worth spending money on, I encourage couples to set up an “Ours, Yours, and Mine” account system which supports collaboration on joint spending and expenses, as well as individual prerogative and independence around non essential spending. Things like the mortgage, utilities, food and children’s needs would come from the joint account, which the couple would fund equally, but proportionately to their income. The separate accounts would be funded based on an agreed upon monthly amount, also equally and proportionately from each spouse’s income. That way, the husband who wanted to get an electric bike would fund it from his own account in his own time without it having to meet his wife’s “priority” test.
For other one-earner couples I’d encourage them to look at the subjectivity around discretionary expenses. What’s “worth it” to one, may not be to the other. Weighting that based on who makes the money can create a nasty power imbalance that can color the relationship, so better to take turns or negotiate out disagreements about what “we” spend or don’t.
The number one complaint couples refer to when they call with a therapy request is “We don’t communicate.” Sound familiar? And oddly, unless partners are each bound and gagged (that’s another post, I think), or living separately in parts of the world without telephones, video or email, they communicate – maybe not clearly, or respectively, or productively, but they COMMUNICATE.
Communication can be an eye roll, a grimace, a smile, a turning away, a raised eyebrow, a frown, a touch, silence, a scream, a laugh, etc. They are all ways of sending a message. Our 15 month old granddaughter speaks only about 20 actual words at this point, but communicates quite clearly and purposefully with pointing, head shaking, smiling, hand waving, hugs, cries, shrieks, squeals or laughs. Because the family doesn’t expect many actual words we all pay attention to what she’s “saying” and try to respond in a tuned in way.
Our 9 year old Lab has never said one word but also communicates very clearly and consistently with groans, sighs, tail wags, kisses, stares, or nudges. And he runs the household! He usually gets what he wants without ever saying one word.
So maybe, the issue is really “We don’t send or receive clear signals, We don’t listen. We don’t pay attention. We don’t tune in.”
This is one of the big issues most couples have struggled with at some point in their relationship: who pulled the trigger on a toxic event – who was really responsible for the mess?
It usually goes something like this:
“If you hadn’t said ______________________ I wouldn’t have been so ____________________!”
“Well, if you hadn’t been so ________________ I wouldn’t have said ______________________!”
And round and round it goes. A circle of blame and justification for bad behaviors. Both partners not feeling understood around their respective grievances, because the context felt so critical to the sequence.
If you’ve ever been in one of these go-arounds, (and chances are, you have been, more often than you’d like to admit), then you know too keenly that this kind of exchange only contributes to raising blood pressure and your dog, who’s been witnessing it, getting more weirded out by the minute. (That’s another post: “Want the truth? Then watch the dog!”)
I’ve worked with couples who escalated so intensely around this kind of exchange that they fought for hours about this Who Started It All nonsense, then punished each other for days or weeks afterward!
So, what’s a more productive line of questioning to pursue around a fight? – one which might actually move the two of you toward some healthy ownership, some forgiveness, repair, resolution and some learning?
It’s a few simple questions to ask yourself:
“Where was I in that fight?”
“What were my contributions to that problem?”
“What do I regret about my own behavior in that situation?”
“What could I have done differently, even though I felt provoked?”
(My often blamed) but wise husband says: “In other words, take a look at yourself, because that’s the only thing you can actually change!”
I recently met with a couple I’ve been working with for quite some time. We hadn’t met in over a month due to a number of unforeseen events, including the fact that they’d each contracted Covid within the same week. It was a shock to them considering that they’d both been vaccinated and had practiced diligent Covid safety behaviors for the past year, like mask wearing in all public places, no indoor dining, avoidance of large gatherings, etc.
As with so many of us, Covid had become the dreaded Boogeyman, especially for the husband who was immunocompromised. It had become the terrorizer, the ticket to an untimely death, if not only a protracted, lonely suffering in an over-crowded hospital. Covid was the provider of all losses:
- no more eating out
- no concerts
- no sporting events
- no presumed working in an office with all its social perks
- no safe travel requiring plane trips
- no movie theaters
- no stress-free grocery shopping
- no shield from other people’s sense of social responsibility or lack of it
- no break from one’s partner or spouse, who now had to fulfill most needs for connection.
- no more easy, safe, spontaneous visits with kids and grandkids
So what was their Covid Silver Lining?
- They thought it fortunate to have both tested positive within a few days, so no need to quarantine from each other!
- They coughed a lot, but weren’t seriously sick, and felt relieved and thankful for being mostly tired.
- They were quite tired, so they felt legitimacy about their frequent need to sleep and nap!
- They had previously stocked up on lots of supplies, so felt proud about preparedness, and relief not needing to shop!
- The end of Summer weather was lovely, so they convalesced outside, not requiring hospitalization!
- They caught up on reading, email and TV without guilt!
- They found a new patience and tenderness with each other, taking turns with nursing roles!
- They had time to talk about small, private things without the pressure of work or interacting with the outside world!
- They enjoyed “paid leave,” and discovered a new appreciation for their jobs.
- They spent a lot of lazy time in their yard, realizing how blessed they were to live in such a beautiful place.
- They spent 18 to 20 days together, getting a taste of “retirement,” and could now envision it!
- But, most of all, they no longer feared the Booogeyman Covid. They had survived. They had thrived. Together.
So, with or without testing positive, what’s your Covid Silver Lining?