It’s one of the ugly must-do’s of marriage: figuring out how to talk to your spouse about debt. Whether it got dragged down the aisle like a ball and chain or snowballed after the nuptials, debt is a tough topic.
Between student loans, a ginormous, she-can’t-say-no-now engagement ring, and that Pnina Tornai wedding gown, you may have walked straight down the aisle and into the hole. Tack on your first home, your “Has-it-really-been-nine-months?” firstborn, and the unforeseens that will accrue for life, and debt isn’t going anywhere soon.
When you stop to look at the average personal debt of Americans, the number is daunting. Over $90,000, on average, per person, with Generation X far out in the lead at almost $136,000. And Millennials, on average, are deep in debt from their mid-20’s.
Whether it’s “good debt” or “bad debt,” it’s still debt. And most couples really don’t know how to talk about it.
Consider that one in three couples considers finances to be an area of contention in their marriage. And consider that money issues are at the root of many divorces.
Learning how to talk to your spouse about debt – and without blame – could therefore be a worthwhile, marriage-saving effort.
But how do you do that? You may not even know how to communicate with your spouse without fighting.
Truth be told, money is about far more than just practicality. It’s emotional. And, once emotions are on the table, dollar signs and zeroes have a way of losing their relevance.
This is why discussions about money and its management need to be steeped in intention and not just pragmatics. If you can step outside the spreadsheet and into your spouse’s heart (and the heart of your marriage), the experience will shift, as well.
The time to begin these conversations isn’t when a crisis hits or you’re in major credit card debt. You should be talking about your finances from the time you realize you will be spending your lives together.
And you should certainly be having financial discussions if you plan to move in together, whether en lieu of or before marriage. At that point, your attitudes and behaviors toward money become mutually affecting.
Below are some tips for how to talk with your spouse about debt. By starting off on the right path with the right attitude, this taboo topic can actually become a springboard to happiness and greater intimacy.
Talk to the person, not the debt.
Remember, money has emotional roots and expressions. You came to your relationship from different backgrounds, different influences, different experiences, and different feelings.
One of you may be a spender and one of you a saver. One of you may have a lifetime of insurmountable debt and the other a mega-nest egg. One of you may have grown up with food stamps while the other knew the taste of a silver spoon.
But now you are married, and your differences have to come together for a common good.
Discussing debt is really just another aspect of discussing personal history. You wouldn’t criticize or judge your spouse for having divorced parents or for going to boarding school. You would simply assimilate the information as a way of better understanding the person you love.
Money is really no different. These discussions should facilitate a deeper understanding of your spouse and your marriage.
How you discuss is as important as what you discuss.
Focus on your mutual goals.
Tough topics have a way of softening when they have a positive motivator. No one looks forward to being scolded by a spouse for spending money or wanting things. Likewise, no one looks forward to paying off debt accrued by someone else or from lack of financial discipline.
Set the tone of the conversation by asking your spouse for his/her goals. What do you want your life and our marriage to look like? What kinds of things would you like to do and achieve? What is important to you? What would it look and feel like for you if we didn’t have this debt?
Be the first to confess mistakes.
Whether the topic is money or housework, leading with your own vulnerability is a practically magical way to put your spouse at ease.
Learning how to talk to your spouse about debt is really about learning how to talk with your spouse. And that means no one out-ranks the other, stands in judgment, or makes all the decisions.
When you lead by example, you demonstrate the importance of self-awareness and self-accountability. “I’ve been paying close attention to my own spending habits since Christmas, and I’ve noticed some patterns. I spend more when I shop online than when I shop in person. I have always been the first in line for the newest phone model. I sign us up for upgraded TV channels that we don’t really need. I forget how quickly those Starbucks coffees really add up.”
You may think the details are about financial habits. But the message between the lines is, “I want you to know that this isn’t about you. It’s about us and our dreams. And I love you and us enough to look at how and where I can do better.”
The effects of that self-awareness will carry over into other areas of your marriage, too.
Yes, this is about debt. And debt isn’t fun to talk about. But this is also about communication, plain and simple.And, in that regard, it doesn’t matter what the topic is. You’re communicating. So all the rules of healthy communication apply: active listening, body language, looking at your partner through a filter of love.
These things are critical. Money is just the topic. Communication is the relationship. And learning how to communicate with your spouse in a more compassionate way elevates the relationship.
Hold your spouse’s hand. Listen for undertones of fear or shame (they hover around money issues) and be quick to validate and reassure.
And, most importantly, don’t criticize or judge. Remember, you’re communicating with the person, not the debt.
Make a plan.
If you have laid a strong foundation for your debt discussions, the nitty-gritty of looking at the numbers won’t be so painful.By starting with your goals, you put a positive motivator at the top of the page. Everything below them then becomes “supporting behavior.”
No one is being punished or shamed or controlled. You are both participating in unloading the weight of debt so you can enjoy the accomplishment of your dreams. And that mindset can be very energizing.
It can also deepen your intimacy because you and your spouse are working as a team toward a common goal.
Foregoing one coffee a week can mean one extra payment on the car this year. One less impulse buy for me means one more thing we can do together as a family. A better credit rating means we can start planning to buy a house in a couple years.
Making a plan puts purpose behind the discipline it takes to deal with debt. And it gives you both something to look forward to.
Learning how to talk to your spouse about debt is really about learning how to talk to your spouse…period. When your communication is built on a foundation of love and trust, the topic is just that – a topic.
By treating your attitudes and behaviors toward money as insight into your spouse, you have access to deeper mutual understanding. Deeper understanding, cradled by intention, can lead to deeper love.
And love is always a good debt to fall into.