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For richer or poorer: Money and power in relationships

Troubleshooting the second leading cause of divorce

Different ideas about household finances and complex dynamics influencing financial power control can destroy relationships. On the other hand, love can triumph when both partners discuss their financial concerns openly and objectively to find workable solutions to meet both their needs.

“Other than infidelity, financial difficulties and disagreements are the next leading cause of divorce,” says Jodi Tromp, a clinical psychologist who practises at Netcare Akeso George.

Common points of conflict may include debt, one spouse having financial control over the other, impulsive spending and ‘financial infidelity’, which occurs when one partner conceals their financial decisions and activities from the other in a way that affects their joint financial situation.

“The strain caused by an overextended budget, not meeting financial responsibilities or not having financial control and independence often causes increased anxiety in the relationship. This can lead to blame and resentment, two dynamics powerful enough to end a marriage,” Tromp points out.

“Dynamics around finances in a marriage can be complex and have far-reaching impact on the health of the marriage and the family in general. Coming into a marriage, each spouse has unconscious practices and beliefs when it comes to planning and managing their money,” she says.

If one spouse believes that strict budgeting and saving are the responsible way, and the other values life’s unpredictability and spontaneity leading to more spending, these philosophies will eventually come into conflict.

“Financial power dynamics can also influence matrimonial harmony, where one spouse may exert control by either withholding or limiting the financial freedom of the other spouse, especially if that spouse is financially dependent. Traditional patriarchal views about a woman’s role in domestic financial management are changing, and women are becoming more financially independent globally. Unfortunately, in many households, these changes are yet to be adopted and accepted,” Tromp says.

“On an individual level, financial independence for women can provide a sense of empowerment, achievement, and security. This is especially true within marriage, where men have traditionally been the breadwinners. Feeling empowered and secure can reduce anxiety and create a sense of safety for emergencies like job loss, for example.

“On a broader level, greater financial independence for women contributes to a more progressive society, helping to rebalance deeply rooted gender biases. This works towards strengthening partnerships and can reduce power imbalances, ultimately contributing to deeper marriage satisfaction.

“Working to become financially independent in a marriage, where previously one was financially dependent, requires adjustment for both partners.  Practically, becoming financially independent often includes a shift in responsibilities that calls for an adjustment in existing roles in the marriage and the household.

“Adapting to the changes may initially take some getting used to, as routines and roles will shift and this can be uncomfortable. However, clear and open communication regarding these changes will make the adjustment smoother.

“Psychologically, the sense of empowerment and security can provide a newly financially independent person with more negotiating power and confidence within their marriage. This can shift an existing power dynamic in either a positive or negative manner,” Tromp says.

“Should the power dynamic shift more positively, the individual may feel personal satisfaction in being able to contribute meaningfully to the family’s finances and sharing these responsibilities with their partner. It may also sometimes happen that the power dynamic can lead to marital problems, if not navigated with honesty. If one partner feels they are no longer needed, or the change makes them feel insecure, this could potentially motivate them to try to exert control in some other, more problematic, way,” Tromp warns.

“The psychological adjustment needed can be eased with open, non-defensive communication.Discussing financial habits, anxieties and expectations can help to avoid conflict, blame and resentment. The key is to calmly discuss, with open minds, one’s own ideas about money and financial management, being sensitive to the differences in each person’s ideas. Create a middle ground that will bring security for both spouses.

“Ultimately, this will reduce anxiety and conflict, and improve family dynamics. If needed, mental health professionals can assist couples and individuals with communicating their needs and finding mutually rewarding solutions to strengthen the relationship and nurture both individuals’ strengths,” Tromp concludes.

For information about mental health services and accessing care, Netcare Akeso is here to help. In the event of a psychological crisis, individuals can also phone the Netcare Akeso crisis helpline on 0861 435 787, 24 hours a day, to talk to an experienced counsellor.

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