Money may not be the most romantic topic to talk about this Valentine’s Day, but it may be one of the most important ones influencing the health of your marriage. So, whether you broach the subject on February 14th or save it for another day, here are suggestions for making money a marriage-strengthening tool rather than a source of stress and strife.

Know each other’s story

Oftentimes, financial issues between spouses aren’t really about what they appear to be about. An argument might be sparked by a specific incident that just happened (spending too much on clothing, for example), but sometimes what’s really going on has to do with the past.

Five months into their dating relationship, Julie mentioned to Sam she was carrying a $1,200 balance on a credit card. Sam was stunned. To him, that was nothing short of irresponsible. Scrambling for something to say, he only made matters worse by offering to lend Julie enough money to pay off her balance. Julie felt judged.

As difficult as that conversation was, it spurred other conversations that helped them learn more about the source of each other’s financial habits and attitudes. Sam came from a stable, middle-class family. They lived within their means, always bought used cars, and always paid cash.

Julie’s family was somewhat “more colorful.” Her parents divorced when she was five. Although her mom could stretch a dollar farther than most, money was always tight.

A few days after the credit-card conversation, Julie told Sam of a time when she had to help her mom make her mortgage payment. Sam felt much more empathy. By the same token, as Julie learned more about Sam’s upbringing, she understood why he hated debt. She quickly paid off what she owed.

Today, Julie credits getting at the root of their financial beliefs and behaviors for the ease with which they now talk about money.

How well do you know your spouse’s financial story? Whether you’re engaged or have been married for many years, talk about ways your upbringing affects your use of money.

Get the right tools

Sheila was very good at living within her means. Even with a relatively low salary, she always had money in the bank. Because she grew up as one of five kids with a stay-at-home mom and schoolteacher dad, frugality was practically her middle name. However, the money she had in the bank never felt like enough. Whatever she bought, she always opted for the lowest-cost option.

When she and Mike got married, he had been using a simple spreadsheet to guide his spending. As they used it to guide their joint finances, Sheila began to see that her standard response to any spending opportunity — “we can’t afford it” — was based on an unwarranted fear. Seeing on paper that they actually could afford it — whether a restaurant meal or a better brand of clothing — gave her a sense of freedom around money she had never experienced before.

That’s just one of the many benefits of a family budget. Having a system in place that shows where your household stands financially at any moment in time provides complete financial transparency, fostering trust and teamwork.

Learn to fight fair

Every healthy relationship involves conflict. In fact, psychologist John Gottman believes, “Fighting . . . can be one of the healthiest things a couple can do for their relationship.” In his book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, Gottman says how you fight is “one of the most telling ways to diagnose the health of your marriage.” Here are his rules of engagement.

  • Complain, don’t criticize.
    A complaint focuses on the other person’s behavior; criticism focuses on their character. “You overspent your clothing budget” is a complaint. It becomes criticism when you blame or verbally attack the other person by adding, “That was really selfish of you.”
  • Avoid contempt.
    Even worse than criticism, contempt insults or psychologically injures your partner. An example: “What’s the matter with you? Don’t you ever think before you spend?” Be especially vigilant about not letting contemptuous comments creep into your relationship.
  • 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, I’ll make up for it next month by playing less often.”
  • Stay with it.
    Gottman says men 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 ESPN, 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. First, “You must have five times as many positive as negative moments together if your marriage is to be stable.” Second, “Most couples I’ve worked with over the years really wanted just two things from their marriage — love and respect.” Sound familiar? It’s right out of Ephesians 5.

While men and women both need love and respect, a wife especially needs to feel loved by her husband and a husband especially needs to feel respected by his wife.

That may sound simple. However, Emerson Eggerichs, author of the appropriately named book, Love & Respect, points out that without feeling loved, a woman will naturally react to her husband without respect, and without feeling respected, a man will naturally react to his wife without love. That gives rise to what Eggerichs calls “The Crazy Cycle.”

How to break out of it? A husband is called to love his wife even when she’s being disrespectful and a wife is called to respect her husband even when he’s being unloving. That’s not easy, but it’s amazingly powerful.

This point about love and respect may make for an interesting conversation about money. Women, ask your husbands, “What do I do, financially speaking, that makes you feel respected?” And, “What else could I do?” Guys, ask your wives, “What do I do, financially speaking, that makes you feel loved.” And, “What else could I do?”

The insights you gain could go a long way toward making money work especially well in your relationship.

Adapted from Money and Marriage: A Complete Guide for Engaged and Newly Married Couples by SMI Managing Editor Matt Bell. SMI has a limited number of these books available for just $10, including postage. To order, send a check made out to Sound Mind Investing to 9700 Park Plaza Ave., Suite 202, Louisville, KY 40241-2287.