Power Struggles Over Money Threaten Relationship

Dear Neil: My husband and I are in a sharp disagreement about how to handle money. We both work full time, but he brings in considerably more income than I do. Because he earns more and supports us, he feels he should be able to decide how and where our money is spent. This has led to some terrible arguments between us. I feel he is being unfair, and my feelings of closeness and intimacy have suffered, but he doesn’t want to talk about it. Our sex life is at it’s lowest point ever. How can we resolve this problem?

Unequal in Vancouver, British Columbia

Dear Pamela: Ask most marriage therapists, and they’ll tell you people are usually far more willing to talk about their sex life than about their income. Almost everyone has a tendency to hide from feelings about money, and to avoid talking openly about it. Even married people want to hide from the fact that a marriage is also a business arrangement where two people must actively engage in a lifelong process of negotiating about money and how it is to be spent.

What you’re describing is that you feel less than equal, and being less than an equal partner in a marriage isn’t very sexy or romantic. The dynamic works like this: the one with more money is perceived as having more power. The one with less money usually feels powerless and less valued.

When someone feels powerless and undervalued in a marriage, he or she is likely to close down and withhold him or herself emotionally—and that will eventually affect their sex life enormously. The sequence is almost inevitable, according to Naomi and Doug Moseley in the book Making Your Second Marriage A First-Class Success (Prima Publishing, 1998). They say that when one partner withholds money, or the power that comes with making decisions about money, the other begins to withhold something of importance as well. Quite often that “something” is full sexual presence. Usually it isn’t done with conscious intent, but it’s still done.

Power imbalances over money thus have a strong tendency to create an unfortunate by-product: sexual deadening. It usually happens gradually. First intercourse becomes less frequent. Arousal becomes elusive. It starts with one partner, then sooner or later it affects the other, and the net result is that both find themselves in a sexually dry relationship without quite knowing how it all happened.

A spouse cannot hold power in one area of a relationship without suffering a consequence in another area of the relationship. In order to keep on top of this process, couples need to address their money issues—regularly and honestly. Both must begin talking seriously about how much is to be spent, where priorities are and where sacrifices will be made. All of this is going to require give-and-take on both sides; but if both parties stay in the ring—with honesty—some kind of solution will eventually emerge.

Money is a symbol of power, one of the biggest such symbols in our culture. Therefore, money issues are fundamentally important to most every marriage, and they won’t go away just because they are ignored.

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