In a typical marriage, one of the greatest sources of conflict is finances. Couples can spend years figuring out questions on financial decision-making, money management, budgeting, and more. Money is often cited as a top reason for divorce.
For the couple with one or more start-up businesses in the family, these issues can be even more fraught. When you're not sure when your next paycheck is coming or how much it will be, it can feel impossible to make good decisions about money. Simply talking about money with your spouse can become exceedingly painful.
So how can you and your partner move past that?
When life feels risky and scary, it's important to understand what our instinctual responses are. Oftentimes the rational, clear-headed part of our brain (the prefrontal cortex) shuts down and is overtaken by the more reptilian parts of the brain (in the hindbrain) that can only ask: Am I in danger? Do I need to fight or flee?
It's also important to understand that you and your partner may respond to the same threat in different ways.
According to Rivka Slatkin, co-founder of The Marriage Restoration Project, "how men and women react to money and not having money is very different."
Women tend to worry about safety and security; men fixate more on shame and failure. If faced with homelessness, Slatkin explains, a woman would be most concerned about her physical safety. A man would focus more on his inability to earn a living.
Because of these different outlooks, the entrepreneurial couple who is struggling financially could end up in a terrible downward spiral. Worried about insecurity, the woman might nag her husband about their financial troubles. If he's the entrepreneur, she might tell him to get a "real" job or offer to find a higher-paying job herself.
Each of these actions, while not intended to do so, could push a man into further shame and even depression. He might then take this out on his wife through conflict or withdrawal. This would, understandably, cause her to feel even more insecure and anxious--continuing the painful cycle.
"In start-ups, funds are so tight that it would be really helpful for men and women to understand the fear-shame dynamic," Slatkin explains. Once we understand this dynamic, we can understand the harm that our instinctual responses cause, and we can begin to figure out how to break that cycle.
Here's what Slatkin recommends for working through hard financial issues in your marriage:
1. Acknowledge that you are both right.
Whether your dominant response to money troubles is fear or shame, both are legitimate. Your partner needs to feel affirmed, rather than dismissed, in his or her feelings.
2. Initiate a safe dialogue.
Discussing these issues when both partners feel ready is important. Slatkin suggests this conversation starter: "Can we have a dialogue about this in a safe and connected way? I want to hear more about this." The initiator will likely need to be the partner who is feeling less triggered.
3. Have a structured communication process.
Healthy communication with your partner begins with listening well, affirming, and reflecting back what you have heard. The one who is speaking should focus on using "I" statements instead of assigning blame.
This approach creates safe boundaries for both partners. Once that safety is there, the two of you are better equipped to tackle difficult topics.
4. Be prepared to go deep.
None of us comes into marriage as a blank slate. Our views on money, and the emotions we feel toward it, are shaped by our families of origins, our childhood experiences, and our backgrounds.
Once you begin discussing money, don't expect the conversation to remain only about money. While potentially difficult, these dialogues are great opportunities to understand one another better.
5. If needed, get outside counsel.
If, even after a productive dialogue, you can't agree on a financial plan for your family, it may be time to get outside help. You could call upon a marriage-family therapist (for relationship challenges) or a financial adviser (for the nuts and bolts of financial planning). If you can't afford a professional, a trusted mentor or friend could also be very helpful.
The key part of dealing with financial challenges in your marriage, according to Slatkin, is to do it with your partner rather than in opposition to your partner. "We are all born in connection," she explains. "The best healing is through connection."
Together, you have a far better chance of figuring out healthy next steps that make sense for the entire family.