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How to Fight Fair about Money

  • Matt Bell
  • Published Feb 29, 2012
How to Fight Fair about Money

Every healthy relationship involves conflict. In fact, psychologist John Gottman, who has spent more than twenty years studying what makes marriages last, believes that “fighting . . . can be one of the healthiest things a couple can do for their relationship.”

Gottman says that how couples fight is “one of the most telling ways to diagnose the health of your marriage.”

So, don’t try to avoid conflict.  Instead, learn to fight fair. Here’s how:

Complain, Don’t Criticize

A complaint focuses on the other person’s behavior; criticism focuses on their character. An example of a complaint is “You overspent your clothing budget again this month.” It becomes criticism when you blame or verbally attack the other person by adding a comment such as, “That was really selfish of you.”

Avoid Contempt

Even worse than criticism, contempt insults or psychologically abuses your partner. An example: “What’s the matter with you? Don’t you ever think before you spend?”

Be especially vigilant about not letting these types of comments creep into your relationship.  Think about the words you use and avoid any that convey contempt.

Listen Well

When you’re on the receiving end of a complaint, your instinct will be to respond quickly.  Go against that instinct.  Instead, listen actively to what the other person has to say.  Make sure you understand the issue by asking clarifying questions and mirroring back what you hear.

Speak Non-Defensively

Defensiveness, which includes denying responsibility and making excuses, only turns up the heat on arguments. When she says, “I think you’re spending too much on golf,” it won’t help to storm back with, “I have to spend sixty dollars whenever I play; that’s how much it costs!”

Try this instead: “Well, let’s take a look at our budget and see how much I’ve spent this month compared to the golf budget we both agreed on. If I’ve spent too much this month, I’ll make up for it next month by finding some less expensive places to play or by playing less often.”

Stay With It

Gottman says men are especially are likely to bail out of an argument. Even if they don’t grab the remote in the middle of the conversation and switch on SportsCenter, they may check out by responding with silence. Guys: stay focused.

Two Keys to a Great Marriage

Gottman has drawn two simple, powerful conclusions from his years of studying what makes for a healthy marriage. The first is a straightforward mathematical formula: “You must have five times as many positive as negative moments together if your marriage is to be stable.” The second is this: “Most couples I’ve worked with over the years really wanted just two things from their marriage—love and respect.”

While men and women both need love and respect, women especially need to feel loved by their husband and men especially need to feel respected by their wives.

This point about love and respect would make for some especially helpful conversations.  Women, ask the man in your life, “What do I do, financially speaking, that makes you feel respected?”  And, “What else could I do?”  Guys, ask the woman in your life, “What do I do, financially speaking, that makes you feel loved.”  And, “What else could I do?”

As I’ve written before, the insights you gain from this conversation could go a long way toward making money work really well in your relationship.

What have you learned about fighting fair that could help other couples?  Leave a comment below.

March 8, 2011

Matt Bell is the author of three personal finance books published by NavPress, including the brand new "Money & Marriage: A Complete Guide for Engaged and Newly Married Couples."  He teaches a wide variety of workshops, including MoneySmart Marriage, at churches, conferences, universities, and other venues throughout the country.  To learn more about his work and subscribe to his blog, go to: