I’ve been married for a little over six months, and I’m learning a great deal about what it means to be married. Despite all the classes I’ve taken and conversations I’ve had with my mother and others, I’m still discovering stuff I never thought about before. I’m finding it’s usually not so easy.
I’m writing to you about one specific area (though there are others I could probably complain about!) because I’m not sure whether or not it’s normal or totally nuts! It’s regarding money. I’m used to people who are easygoing around money. My parents are generous and don’t worry about every single penny. They are not rich, but I guess they figure a few dollars here or there is not going to change their lives significantly. For instance, when I was single, if I asked for some money to go shopping for a dress and told them I needed $80, they’d give me $100, not even ask me how much the dress cost, and tell me to keep any change. It was just a very relaxed attitude. They knew that they could trust me to shop wisely and be responsible.
If they needed to buy something or hire someone to fix something in the house, I never, ever heard them bargaining with anyone. I’ve heard them say many times that everyone deserves to make a living.
Now that I’m married, and my husband and I are both working, I’m shocked to see that my husband wants to know about every dollar I’m spending. He’ll look at the billing statements and question me about every little expense, even if it’s for a few dollars. I’m not irresponsible — and I earn nearly as much as he does — and yet he is always breathing down my back regarding money. I asked my mother whether this is normal and she said it isn’t. I’m too embarrassed to ask any friends who are young and also just starting out, because something in me tells me that it’s shameful and I don’t want them to know what I’m dealing with.
When I tell my husband that I’m not used to being scrutinized so closely about every penny I spend, and that I certainly don’t ask him to explain to me what he spends money on, he becomes very defensive and angry and claims that it is his right as a husband to be in control of the money. I have to defend every purchase … and I mean every purchase. I’m not used to this and something tells me that I shouldn’t go along with it. Yet somehow, since I’m not a fighter, I tend to just go along to get along.
What do you make of my situation? In some ways, he is generous. He’ll bring home flowers for Shabbos and he even surprised me with a beautiful gift on our six-month anniversary. But he’ll spend the money if he is in control of the decision to spend it and not if it’s my idea. I read so many of your columns about marriages that sound awful, and I don’t want to wake up after 20 years of marriage and realize that I tolerated something dysfunctional that I should have nipped in the bud right away. What should I do?
I think you do have reason to be concerned. There are those husbands (and sometimes wives) who use money as a means to control. Marriage should never be about control. It is about two people who come together from a place of love and a desire to elevate each other’s happiness and satisfaction. I’m not saying that your husband doesn’t love you or even that he doesn’t want you to be happy, but when it comes to money, his behavior is off and will never lead to anything good.
I agree that sometimes we do have to “go along to get along,” but in this case I worry that you are setting yourself up for a lifetime of frustration and, ultimately, anger. And when our gut tells us that something is just “not right” — and you are obviously experiencing such a feeling, otherwise you wouldn’t feel shame discussing this with your friends — we need to respect that inner voice.
The two of you need to have a serious conversation about money—what it means to both of you and how much autonomy you both deserve, as it relates to your individual spending. Furthermore, I have to wonder whether issues will come up between the two of you when it comes to mutual decisions regarding money. Perhaps you’ll feel it’s time to buy a couch for your living room and he decides it’s not necessary. Or you believe you would benefit from going away for a long weekend and he feels it’s a waste of money. Ultimately, should one of you call all of the shots, or can you have a mature conversation, sharing your thoughts around pros and cons in making a mutually acceptable decision?
Maybe your husband’s attitude reflects how he watched his parents handle money and he doesn’t know any better. Then again, maybe, as we started off, it’s about his need to control you in this way. Whatever the case, this is the time to put the brakes on something that is not working for you. If you can successfully explain to him how this situation makes you feel (and I suspect it makes you feel disempowered, untrustworthy, irresponsible …), it will say a great deal about your ability to communicate effectively. That is a wonderful trait for both of you to possess, because this will be just one of many important conversations that the two of you will be having during the course of your marriage.
But if you feel unheard, disrespected, or shut out, it’s time to call in the big guns! Call a respected couples’ therapist to help you work through this issue. Besides assisting you both in successfully reaching a good place in this regard, you will both learn better communication skills that should serve you well forever more.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at email@example.com or 516-314-2295.