“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”
Once upon a time, there was a prince who lived in a beautiful land.
Oh, wait. Wrong story.
Once upon a time, I was in graduate school and my wife was the one bringing in the paycheck. She had just started at her new job, and so she wasn’t making very much money. I was making a little as a trainer at Kaplan and teaching just about any test that ended with AT (SAT, LSAT, GMAT, MCAT, etc.), but it wasn’t enough for us to have a luxurious lifestyle. We lived in a cheap apartment and ate Chicken Voila! at least three times a week.
My wife would occasionally bring home makeup, clothes, or hair accessories that she’d purchased. I wasn’t exactly the most enlightened soul on the planet, and while, rationally, I understood that, as a female, she was going to want these things, and since she worked in a professional setting, she’d need them, I didn’t do a good job of fighting the resentment that welled up because she was making these purchases. Monkey Brain was telling me that they were for her good and not our good. By the way, I’m sure she was none too pleased when I’d go out for beers at Bar Review (oh, those law school kids and their catchy puns).
I had a conflicting emotion concurrent with this resentment. It was shame. This was her money. She was the one working. She was bringing home the cheddar. I had been profligate during my time in the Army, going on trips and drinking lots of good German beer rather than saving up like I should have. I was the one who had credit card debt that we were still cleaning up. She wasn’t. According to my line of thinking, she should be able to enjoy some of the money that she was earning, since she wasn’t the one who had dug the hole in the first place. My ability to contribute was still far away, a light at the end of the tunnel that I hoped wasn’t a train once I graduated from grad school.
Why was I so conflicted? What were we doing wrong?
There were a couple of missteps that we had taken which caused me to feel resentment:
- We still were thinking in terms of “her money” and “his money.” This is a recipe for disharmony in a marriage. Once you’re married, it’s “our money.” Making that mental merger also strengthens the relationship and creates the avenues for much more communication. In the financial planning clients I have seen, the biggest driver of married couples not reaching their goals is that they do not think as one unit when it comes to money. They tell themselves that they’re contributing to a community pot out of each of their paychecks and then dividing the bills up appropriately, but they’re not truly working as a team. There’s still a barrier between husband and wife, and it’s called a dollar bill.
- She wasn’t communicating with me about what she was going to purchase. I was probably just as guilty of this, so that sound you heard wasn’t the bus wheel running over my wife, I assure you. Neither one of us was great at communicating what we wanted to purchase and why we thought that we needed it. When you have a lot of excess cash after meeting your spending and savings requirements, this isn’t a big deal. When you’re in a situation where the church mice look at you and say “wow! They’re poor!” then you need to be communicating as much as possible.
- We hadn’t agreed on what was important in life for ourselves as a married couple. While we really liked the pastor who officiated our wedding and had done premarital counseling, it wasn’t the most soul-searching exercise that either of us has ever gone through. At the risk of hyperbole, it was pretty much “do you love him? Do you love her? Do you know your financial situations? OK! Let’s do this!” Since we’d not forced ourselves to go through the process of determining what was truly important in our lives, there was disharmony between our spending and what each of us thought was important.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of communication, particularly about money and how it relates to your goals in life, in both strengthening your marriage and in ensuring that you have a financial plan and will stick to it in the good times and in the tough times. I have clients who initially come to me and say “oh, he/she takes care of the money” or “I take care of the money, and my wife/husband doesn’t really care that much.” Yes, it’s usually the husband who is taking care of the money. I do my utmost to quickly disavow them of the notion that such an approach will be successful in the long term. It won’t, except for by blind luck. One spouse may be responsible for the finances, but both spouses must participate in the financial decision-making. You’re a team. Act like one.
If you don’t, there will be disharmony between what you spend and what you think is important. It will open up the door to resentment about spending, which will create other problems. Nip it in the bud. Communicate. Act as a team.
I eventually got over my resentment. It took a particular action on our part to get me over that particular obstacle, and our relationship has been much stronger ever since then.