by KEN GONYER
I could hear them arguing as soon as I rolled my grocery cart into the cereal aisle. They were a middle-aged couple on a shopping trip together, and from the colorful language they were using, it was clear to anyone within earshot the trip was not going well. When I caught sight of them, he was scowling and wrenching a box of toaster pastries out of her hand. As he slammed the package back onto the shelf, he cursed and told her she didn’t need the name-brand. She dropped her arms to her sides and took a step back from him and the cart. Tipping her head to the side and lifting her chin, she looked him in the eye, returned the curse and asked him who he thought he was. They grew quieter as I approached, but I heard him hiss an answer. “I’m the one who pays the bills.”
Like the other shoppers around me, I was embarrassed for the couple and wanted to get away from the scene. It wasn’t easy—I met up with them several more times across the store. The ongoing disagreements seemed to center around money and spending, but they weren’t rational discussions—they were small but bitter fights laced with sarcasm, disrespect, blaming and name-calling. As they bickered, huffed and rolled their eyes, their anger hung around them like a mist. I found myself wondering what had ever brought these two together as a couple. Then I wondered why they were still together when they clearly despised each other so. An old saying came to mind: “marriage is about love; divorce is about money.”
It would’ve been easy to adopt a holier-than-thou attitude as I watched the couple’s antics. Instead, I felt sad and prayed a silent prayer for them and their relationship as I strolled along. They were acting out in public what so many couples experience in private—destructive conflict around finances—fights that are tearing apart their marriages like nothing else. In a 2012 study in Family Relations Journal, Kansas State researcher Sonya Britt showed that more than any other marital issue, money conflict is the top predictor of divorce. These fights are more damaging than disagreements about children, sex, in-laws or anything else.
As they bickered, huffed and rolled their eyes, their anger hung around them like a mist.
I don’t have a scientific explanation for the extra toxicity of conflicts over finances, but from my observations of the couple in the store, it doesn’t seem to just be about money. They weren’t simply disagreeing. No, they were attacking and defending out of deep-seated, mutual contempt.
As a couple married almost 25 years, we too have had our share of disagreements about money. Looking closely at those disputes, I can see a good number of our arguments about money management might have been fueled by deeper issues such as mistrust, insecurity or struggles for control.
When I was handling the bills and got charged some late fees, it wasn’t the fee that bothered Karen as much as my lack of organization. It was stressful for her to not be sure we were on top of our obligations. Her reminders or gentle criticisms shook my self-confidence and triggered self-defense, which of course led to a cycle of harsh words and hurt feelings. When we later decided it would be better for Karen to balance the checkbook and pay the bills, her stress was relieved. Unfortunately, I got uptight about being unhooked from our day-to-day financial picture. I didn’t feel like I knew where our money was going or that I had enough say in our financial decisions. My scornful questions about the way she handled our money felt like an attack or an interrogation to her, and conflict often ensued.
We’ve done better at conflict as the years have passed. With God’s help and the example of many mature couples, we’ve realized our marriage is a great place to learn how to listen to, communicate with and learn from someone we care deeply about. Conflict isn’t bad in itself—it’s just the collision of our different preferences, beliefs and backgrounds. Pushing through conflict is worth the energy because it’s an opportunity to get past those differences, accept and respect each other, and build intimacy. We’re learning what motivates the other person as well as what they’re afraid of. We’re understanding each other’s dreams, valuing each other’s happiness and allowing one another to simply be who we are without apology.
Meanwhile there are still misunderstandings and disagreements about money and lots of other things. After a couple dozen years together, however, we are finding ways to express ourselves without demeaning or disrespecting the other. Our goal has been to understand what the other person thinks and feels without casting judgment. It isn’t always easy. Our conflicts are rarely loud, but sometimes intense. In the end, it always seems to work out. We give. We take. We compromise. We kiss and make up. You might say we know how to have a “good” fight.
Columnists KEN and KAREN GONYER live in Broadway, Virginia. Ken is Director of Member Care at Park View Federal Credit Union (www.pvfcu.org) in Harrisonburg, and Karen is a real estate agent with KlineMay Realty (www.karengonyer.com) in Harrisonburg. Email questions to .