Surviving the Tough Compromises
With a better understanding of some gender-specific approaches to compromise, we’re more equipped to explore some critical issues men and women face together over time in their relationships, namely:
- Household Chores
- Family Obligations
- Personal Goals/Ambitions
Of all the contentious issues couples struggle with in their romantic relationships, the almighty dollar causes more friction between two people than almost all other challenges combined. Even for the super-wealthy, famous celebrities, lottery jackpot winners, and career politicians, money always finds itself at the center of attention. For many of us, sex, love, happiness, and companionship can be had for the right price—but two things money will never buy: immortality and a meaningful and lasting romance. Numerous studies support financial conflict as a leading source of friction among married men and women. David Bach, author of Smart Couples Finish First, describes how money remains one of the most significant areas of marital conflict and consistently among the top four reasons for divorce. In his book, he emphasizes how couples who constantly disagree about finances are less happy than those who function as a team when it comes to making and managing money. In line with Bach’s perspective, Dr. Daniel Mathews, a Human Development Specialist, states, “According to marriage counselors, conflict over money is one of the primary reasons given by couples for seeking professional help.” Furthermore, Dr. Terri Orbuch, a psychologist and research professor at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and author of, Finding Love Again: 6 Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship, draws insight from a recently concluded twenty-five year study on marriage, divorce, and love. Dr. Orbuch’s findings cite money as the number one point of conflict in the majority of marriages, good or bad. Her study also identified that forty-nine percent of divorced people fought over money so often with their spouse—due to different spending styles, lies about spending, income inequalities, or an effort to control one another—that these divorced individuals expect money to be a problem in their next relationship as well.
Shakespeare said, “To be or not to be.” For the rest of us it’s, “Spend or not to spend.” And when we spend, the issue becomes how little or how much? Should we borrow or save? Buy new or used? Invest short term or long term? Splurge for a big vacation or pay down debt? Keep the old sofa or remodel the entire room? A new Harley or a used Honda? Downsize our home or upsize our wardrobe?
No matter who you are or how your financial situation looks, money will always factor into your life. Love it or hate it, the almighty dollar is here to stay. Some people want what they want and won’t settle for less. Others become so tight with their money, they squeak when they walk. But even couples who see eye to eye on money matters, eventually collide over one financial issue or another, often disagreeing where money gets spent.
Why are financial compromises so hard to stomach? Because we place so much importance on money. And while it serves to put food on the table and a roof over our heads, money is not the panacea so many people make it out to be. Remember this the next time you squabble with your partner over a petty impulse buy. Of course, it’s up to you and your partner to define what things you need to spend money on versus those you want to spend money on.
One financial strategy that has worked for many dual income couples I’ve known involves establishing a joint checking account used exclusively for all revolving and necessary expenses shared by both partners like rent/mortgage, utilities, joint loans, etc. Both partners itemize these expenses and split them fifty-fifty. Then each partner deposits the requisite funds into their common expense account. Afterwards, each partner can spend the remainder of their income on whatever they want—clothes, car, furniture, travel, dining out, etc. This system of setting aside money up front for major common expenses provides consistent coverage for the revolving, non-negotiable bills. Then, with each partner free to spend or save the rest of their money however they like, the potential for financial conflict declines significantly. If one partner wants to spend all of their discretionary income on clothes or gadgets, they can, without getting an earful from their significant other every time they pull out their purse or wallet. On the downside, this approach doesn’t always address long-term planning or how one partner might be more or less inclined to save their portion of discretionary cash flow, causing potential friction when one partner claims they’re always broke while the other always has cash to spare.
Regardless of who earns how much, there needs to be a mutual understanding of how the money gets spent. This starts with a mutual definition and understanding of our needs versus wants. Once we agree—hopefully—on the things we need, like food, shelter, and clothes, we can negotiate on the wants. There’s no secret formula here. According to Diane McCurdy, author of How Much Is Enough? Balancing Today’s Needs With Tomorrow’s Retirement Goals, financial compatibly is not about having the same spending habits; rather, it involves a willingness to accept the differences in each other’s approach to money—and the inclination to work together to decide on a budget that accommodates the needs of each person, despite their individual spending preferences. I agree with McCurdy’s philosophy, where both partners must be involved in the decision-making process, even if one partner takes the primary reins on the checkbook balancing or long term financial planning. Regardless of who does what or how different our spending philosophies appear, we should approach financial decisions with the same trust and respect we would otherwise give our partner regarding any other aspects of our relationship.
Another national study, conducted in 2012 by Harris Interactive on behalf of the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), sampled one thousand and five U.S. adults aged eighteen and older by landline and mobile phone. Among the results from this study, twenty-seven percent of those married or living with a partner stated money issues provoked arguments more often than conflicts over children, chores, work, or friends. Roughly forty-nine percent of those surveyed in the study claimed they argued most often over unexpected expenses compared to thirty-two percent who squabbled over insufficient savings. Perhaps even more telling, the study concluded that fifty-five percent of study participants who were married or living with a partner didn’t routinely devote time to discuss financial matters.
In 2012, TODAY.com and the women’s well-being magazine, SELF, conducted a joint survey of twenty-three thousand online users to explore the notion of “financial infidelity.” According to results from the survey, forty-six percent of people have lied to their partner about money, confessing to a wide range of money secrets, including lying about purchases, hiding them in the attic or covertly withdrawing money from joint accounts. Interestingly, roughly sixty-three percent of the male respondents and seventy percent of the female respondents stated honesty about money was as important as remaining monogamous, despite the revelation that more than thirty-four percent of men and women surveyed confessed to keeping money secrets. Furthermore, thirty-two percent of women said they have hidden purchases from their partner, compared with only seventeen percent of men.
The TODAY study aside, other researchers claim financial infidelity now trumps sexual infidelity as the largest threat to stable relationships. Adrian Nazari, founder and CEO of Credit Sesame, offers the following red flags a partner should look for if they suspect financial infidelity:
- Your partner wants to control the finances with no input from you.
- Your partner makes suspicious withdrawals from investment accounts.
- Your partner changes the subject when discussions about money come up.
Author Bernard Poduska, an associate professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, underscores the value oflove and security in successful marriages. From his perspective, lying about debt and expenditures makes money of greater significance than the marriage itself, ultimately undermining the relationship. Furthermore, he describes the importance of understanding the value each partner places on money and how financial harmony within the relationship is critical for “validation, freedom, power, respect, security, and happiness.” He proposes both partners should have equal rights and responsibilities when it comes to controlling finances, and by doing so, will strengthen the marriage bonds. In line with Poduska’s philosophy, author Diane McCurdy’s definition of financial harmony has less to do with partners having comparable spending habits and more about accepting each other’s approach to money, whether similar or not, with a goal of working together to resolve financial issues.
Talk openly and honestly about financial decisions. Work together. Negotiate your differences with a spirit of love and respect. In the end, the issues shouldn’t focus on who likes to spend money on what or debating the pros and cons of joint versus separate accounts. Money might be a necessary evil in today’s society, but it doesn’t have to be the boogeyman hiding under your bed.
Of all the tough compromises couples face, sex and money vie for first place. I’d venture to say more books have been written on these two issues than most other topics combined. With money merely a commodity we exchange for goods and services, sex represents a powerful physical and emotional component of a meaningful and lasting romance. The pressure to engage in sex too often can cause strife with one partner as much as not having sex often enough can frustrate the other. Women prefer romance. Men prefer sex. Not to say that women don’t enjoy sex and men aren’t capable of romance, but somewhere therein lies a balance between the two.
Most sexual compromise centers around the frequency of the act itself. Men usually want more. Women tend to want less. According to Dr. Gail Saltz, psychiatrist and author of The Ripple Effect: How Better Sex Can Lead to a Better Life, the average rate of intercourse for married couples is one point seven times a week. Dr. Saltz also points out there’s a wide variability among ages and individual couples. Other research indicates the frequency of sexual activity with one’s partner typically declines steadily as the relationship continues, reaching roughly half the frequency after one year of marriage compared to the first month of marriage, and declining more gradually thereafter.
Michele Weiner-Davis, a family therapist and author of The Sex-Starved Marriage: A Couple’s Guide to Boosting Their Marriage Libido, confesses how women are not always the partner with the lower sex drive. In her book, she writes, “Most marital therapists would agree that low desire is a bigger problem for women, but men are right behind them—they just don’t talk about it because there is so much shame involved.” Regardless of gender, an overall lack of time and energy from over-burdened schedules remains a systemic problem, at least in America, where we place too much emphasis on work and not enough on enjoying the simple things in life.
Great sex, as with love, can strengthen a relationship, particularly when couples discuss sex openly. Everyone’s libido dances to a different beat, and often, couples struggle with mismatched sexual desire. When this happens, one partner prefers to have sex more frequently and feels rejected and unwanted if the frequency of sex fails to meet their needs. The other partner who prefers to have sex less often starts to feel pressured and frustrated from their perceived obligation to perform when they’d rather not. To counter this libido mismatch, some experts suggest scheduling a portion of your sex life in advance instead of counting on the sparks to fly for both partners at a moment’s notice. By planning ahead, sex becomes something to look forward to. But don’t just “plan” for sex like you’re planning to finish the laundry. Create a romantic setting with candles, a warm bath, flower petals, soft music, sexy lingerie, a cozy dinner, a glass of wine, or anything you both enjoy to help you relax and set the mood. This will help ease the tension from seeing sex as merely an act you’ve scheduled to accomplish on a certain day and time—and more like an invitation to a special event. Because it is a special event.
Laura Brotherson, a marriage and intimacy expert and author of, And They Were Not Ashamed: Strengthening Marriage through Sexual Fulfillment, reminds us that for men, sex is more reaction-based; for women, more decision-based. As Brotherson describes, women approach sex from a mental preparation standpoint as opposed to the man’s more instantaneous physiological response to sexual stimulus. Brotherson also emphasizes the importance of creating the right mood. Whether sex evolves spontaneously or through a planned event, women prepare mentally and physically for sex with “talk, touch, and time.”
Michele Weiner-Davis recommends pressing ahead if you’re not in the mood. In her opinion, partners with lower-levels of sexual desire find themselves turned on, and enjoy sex more than they thought they would initially, once things get started. And of course, sex doesn’t necessarily have to involve intercourse. It can also involve touching, kissing, and other forms of physical affection.
Marty Klein, a marriage and family therapist and author of Sexual Intelligence: What We Really Want from Sex—and How to Get It, concurs with Weiner-Davis’s philosophy about not always waiting for an overwhelming urge to seize us. For those times when one partner has absolutely no desire for sex, Klein suggests a compromise by replacing “no” with “when.” As Klein describes it, telling your partner “not now but after I finish some chores” is more warmly received by the initiating partner than a flat-out rejection, which increases the level of anxiety and frustration for the initiating partner.
The majority of research focuses on married couples who’ve sought therapy for a variety of marital issues, but whose problems may or may not be unique to the long term nature of their relationship. Unlike most unwed couples, married couples typically deal with additional stressors in their lives such as parenthood, joint finances, and more extended family obligations. Not to say that divorced individuals don’t endure their share of sexual challenges as well, especially with demanding careers and potentially complex dynamics from custody arrangements, single parenthood, and other pressures to commit. Regardless of our marital status, a willingness to share each other’s concerns and remain flexible and understanding goes a long way to achieving the sexual compromises we seek.
I will wash dishes, scrub toilets, and do laundry all day long. But when it comes to ironing clothes, I’d rather endure a second root canal procedure than iron wrinkles out of wrinkles on a shirt I know will look worse when I’m finished than it did when I started. I know I’m not alone. I also know division of labor can maintain harmony in the household and avert undo confrontation. I propose a simple compromise to household chores involving division of labor and shared responsibilities: talk it over and make out a list of who does what. Then abide by it. Sounds too easy, doesn’t it? Well, who said chores had to be complicated?
If there’s a particular chore you both find distasteful, then look to outside help. If neither of you care to clean house, then hire a maid. Can’t agree on who does the yard work? Hire a lawn service or the neighbor’s kid next door. Hate doing taxes? Hire an accountant. Adverse to ironing? Find a good dry cleaner.
The more time you spend together doing chores, the more money you save on paying someone else to do them for you. Trouble arises when the see-saw’s out of balance because one person’s doing everything and the other partner’s doing nothing. In today’s society, I find more men are willing to cook and more women are willing to manage the finances. I’ve also met a lot of women who prefer to never cook. With more women maintaining professional careers and more men taking an active role in their home lives, it’s not surprising to see traditional gender roles swap places when it comes to household chores.
Still not convinced? Then consider this: In 2009, the Journal of Family Issues published a study on the relationship between household chores and sexual frequency—yes, some people clearly have too much time on their hands. The study, derived from monitoring the lives of nearly nine thousand married couples with similar age, income, and marital satisfaction, concluded that for men and women, the more housework they do, the more often they are likely to have sex.
The study defined housework to include nine chores: cleaning, preparing meals, washing dishes, washing and ironing clothes, driving family members around, shopping, yard work, maintaining cars, and paying bills. Researchers hypothesized that husbands would benefit more from this housework-sex connection because wives tend to do more housework and would therefore be motivated to engage in “thank-you sex” if their husbands helped out with house duties. Instead, researchers found the effects applied to both genders.
Other research also supports this connection between doing housework and experiencing an increased desire for sex, including a study in 2003 by University of California, Riverside’s sociology professor, Scott Coltrane, who linked fathers’ housework to greater feelings of warmth and affection in their wives. In addition, Neil Chethik, author of VoiceMale, linked a wife’s satisfaction with the division of household duties with her husband’s satisfaction with their sex life. And Robbie Babins-Wagner, CEO of the Calgary Counselling Centre and a marriage and family therapist, wrote in the Calgary Herald, “Doing chores together brings forth a sense of a joint project and a sense of connection (which) women feel more than men. But a younger, newer generation of men is seeing the value in that as well, which I think leads to more closeness and people feeling more committed to the relationship.”
Laura Brotherson, explains how men often underestimate the power of their participation in the home and family as an aphrodisiac. She also describes the importance of the husband’s role—or boyfriend I would argue for those unmarried couples engaged in a long-term relationship—in sharing household responsibilities to lessen the demands on a woman’s time and attention, which in turn helps her ability to engage sexually. Furthermore, as author Michele Weiner-Davis argues, “Nothing turns a woman off quite as effectively as the feeling that she’s doing most of the work at home. I can guarantee that you won’t find her burning the midnight oil dreaming up ways to please her husband sexually. When a low-desire woman feels burned out, the first thing to go on her to-do list is sex.”
Now where did I stash that ironing board?