“Now, we’re going to the mall just to let you boys play in the play area,” Alan says to his wife Carol and his three boys on a rainy Saturday morning. “We’re not able to buy anything right now. Understood?”
Later, Alan sees Carol with a shopping bag. “What’s that?” Alan asks.
“It’s a special chess set to teach beginners. Tyler begged for it, and I don’t know how to play chess. I figured I can learn. Besides,” she adds, “it was half off!”
“But we already have a chess set at home, and you can learn to play online!” Alan says angrily. “I can’t believe you spent money when I said coming in here that we can’t afford to buy anything right now!”
Money isn’t just a tool or form of property, writes couples therapist Margaret Shapiro, but it is also a medium representing relational dynamics, such as power, control, competence, security, commitment, acknowledgement, and caring, to which other researchers add freedom, validation, respect, and even happiness.
As the breadwinner and bill payer, Alan knows the family’s financial situation. Carol works hard too, but her care of the children goes unpaid, and thus largely invalidated.
On the surface, Alan appears to be using his position of breadwinner as a source of power and control in the relationship. Beneath the surface, however, what money really means for Alan is security and a way to care for and provide for the necessities of his family.
Carol, on the other hand, feels powerless in the relationship with regard to money because she knows she isn’t contributing financially. For her, buying the game is a demand for more freedom, validation, and respect.
It’s no secret that money is a key cause of conflict in many relationships. Financial stress translates to emotional distress between couples, according to Gudmunson and is colleagues. Skogrand and company found that all forms of debt, especially auto loans and credit card debt, is associated with lower relationship quality. Conversely, other researchers found that couples’ financial satisfaction is predictive of relationship quality, and another study showed that paying off credit cards leads to couples enjoying improved relationships.