Relationships: Picking Your Battles or Looking Away?

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My friend tells me she is “picking her battles,” but I know she is looking away from the truth of her marriage. I want to shake her and say, “Are you kidding me?”

Let’s call my friend Lori to protect her privacy. I will also modify some facts to further protect her privacy.

Newlyweds Lori and her husband Marcus are decorating their new apartment together. When they talk about color, he prefers blue. When they talk about style, he wants modern. When they talk about fabrics, he prefers beauty over practicality. Lori has yielded to all of Marcus’ strong preferences. She seems to think that if she can explain each of his preferences, it makes sense for him to have such strong opinions and for his opinions to crowd out hers. She tells me that Marcus wants blue because he identifies with the color, that he wants modern because he grew up in a house that was traditional and he is trying to assert his independence, that he prioritizes beauty over practicality because his family didn’t have any style and he wants to have a beautiful home. She has come to believe that what he wants is what she wants.

She says that she doesn’t care about decorating, but I know otherwise. She tells me that she got to choose where they live, clearly trying to convince herself that she has voice in the relationship. I remind Lori that Marcus said he didn’t care where they live as long as he could take the subway to work. I wish she could see that choice where her husband has no opinion isn’t really choice.

Lori characterizes the individual interactions with her husband as “picking her battles.” She chooses not to see that each interaction is not individual but rather is part of a group of interactions that when taken together point to a problem—her husband is controlling. My friend doesn’t want to see that she is looking away from a personality problem, not “picking her battles.”

Let me share an example from my marriage of what I consider to be “picking my battles.” My husband hand feeds our dog on the weekends, even though I have told him numerous times that I don’t like when he does that because it makes it harder for me to feed her during the week, as I do not hand feed. My husband loves our dog to the maximum, and he thinks that hand feeding her is an expression of love and nurture. I think my husband is wrong, but I have decided that it is more important to him to hand feed our dog than it is for me that he not do so. I have chosen not to argue with my husband on this point because I’d rather save my energy for issues more important to our relationship. What I describe here is a single interaction that is not part of a bigger issue, unlike what I am seeing with Lori and Marcus.

Lori tells me that she is happy, and I believe that she believes that she is happy. The lady doth protest too much, I think. You might wonder why my friend would want to be in a relationship with a controlling partner. Here are my educated guesses. She is lonely and wants to be with someone. She has low self-esteem and thinks she can’t find anyone else. She is older and doesn’t want to miss the timing for having a baby. She feels safe and secure being married and doesn’t want to stand on her own as a single woman.

I have a radical proposal that I would like to share with her, but I cannot, so I will share it here. I think my friend should open her eyes and face the truth, which doesn’t mean she needs to leave her husband or get divorced, if that is not what she wants to do. She should admit to herself that she is choosing to look away because she wants to be married. Once she admits this to herself, she won’t need to devote so much time and energy to explaining why Marcus is firm in his opinions, why what he wants really is the right decision, why what he wants is also what she wants. She won’t feel upset, or she’ll feel less upset, each time she bends to his opinions. She will be free to spend her time and energy building other parts of her life. She can look for ways to find voice elsewhere, like with her friends or at her job. She can find a way to be happy, even if her relationship is lacking. She may one day decide that she wants more out of marriage than Marcus can give her, but that will be her choice.

Facing the truth is liberating. The problem is that people do not want to face the truth.

Wife’s Bill of Rights–Money of Her Own

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Does your husband control you because he makes all the money?

Here’s a fact pattern I’ve been seeing: The husband works, the wife stays home with the kids, the husband makes all the decisions on money, leaving the wife feeling helpless and controlled.

Let’s look at an example. The family lives in New York City, and the child is too young to be eligible for the school bus. The mother must take the child crosstown and uptown to get to school each morning. The commute involves three subway lines or one crosstown bus and one subway. Either way, the commute is exhausting for the mother. One morning it was raining and they were running late, so the mom jumped in a cab with her daughter. The commute was a dream, relatively speaking.

The wife tells her husband how hard the commute is with her young daughter and how life would be so much easier if they could take a cab every day. “We don’t have the money,” the husband responds, which sounds like a reasonable answer, except that money miraculously shows up when the husband wants to take the family on vacation or spend on himself. The wife is careful with money, buying herself clothing infrequently and not spending much when she does.

What should you do if your husband keeps tight reins on the money?

First, talk to your husband. Let’s assume money for transportation to school is the issue, as in the example. You could say, “It seems that when I want money for cabs, we don’t have the money, but when you want to go on vacation or buy a new television, the money shows up.” The husband will likely give an answer that makes sense on the surface, such as, “I had just gotten a bonus when I bought the new television, but we were running low on cash when you asked about the taxis.” What he says may or may not be true, but you’ll never know if you are in the dark about money.

You and your husband should be partners in deciding how you spend your money. The money is no less yours because you didn’t earn it. You are the support in your family that makes it possible for your husband to go out and make money. Sit down with your husband and get to know your finances. If it turns out you don’t have the money for taxis, you will understand and you won’t feel controlled. If you do have the money, you will be able to show your husband. Information will empower you.

Your husband may not intend to be controlling. Individuals have different preferences for saving versus spending, and your husband may be more of a saver than a spender. You will never know what motivates him unless you understand your finances. You will not be able to work out your differences unless you are informed.

How to spend money without feeling controlled?

Let’s return to my example where the wife watches her money carefully and doesn’t spend much on clothing. This woman would love to buy herself a new black dress for an upcoming party, but she is hesitant because her husband reviews the credit card statement and she doesn’t want to hear her husband’s comments, which could include, “Did you buy something?”, “Did you need a new dress?” or “That was an expensive dress.” Those comments make her feel controlled. There is a reason many women shop with cash.

Here’s a solution: You and your husband can get together each year, talk about finances and decide on a set amount of money that is yours and yours alone to spend on yourself or however you see fit. There is no reason the husband should not also have discretionary money for himself. I am focusing here on the wife because there is a vulnerability that comes from being out of the paid workforce, and I’ve seen a pattern of wives who do not work feeling controlled by their husbands on matters of money.

Now these husbands may not intend to be controlling. They may legitimately be stressed about money, and not knowing how much money their wives are going to spend can add to the stress. Budgeting discretionary money is a great solution. When the wife spends money out of her discretionary funds, the husband should have no reason to feel stressed because the wife is spending money that has been budgeted for her to spend. I recommend that the discretionary money be set aside in a separate bank account to keep things simple.

A woman who feels controlled by her husband regarding money should let him know how she feels and ask him to work with her to find a solution. She could say something like, “I’m feeling like you are looking over my shoulder whenever I buy something. I would like to be able to spend money without feeling stressed. Can we come up with a solution that would work for both of us?” She could then talk to him about the concept of budgeting money for her to spend. It doesn’t matter how much money a couple can afford to allocate. What matters is that the couple finds a solution where the wife can spend money without feeling controlled.