Can Separating Your Relationship And Your Money Help Both?

Yaran Noti writes on Details' blog about couples who opt to lead separate financial lives to minimize arguments over financial affairs. But can it help?

Noti writes:

Purchasing decisions-involving everything from toilet paper to a vacation home-are common flash points for spouses, and as the economy falters, discussions about them only become more fraught. "The No. 1 thing couples divorce over is money," says Leah Hanson, director of the Harmoney program, a Boston counseling service that teaches couples how to communicate about finances. "Recessions and rising prices result in divorce."

It might possibly be more apt to say that selfishness and inflexibility around issues related to money cause problems in relationships, but that might just be me.

Noti explores two types of separate financial arrangements between couples: in the first, couples split expenses evenly without regard to income; and in the second, couples proportion their shared expenses based on each person's income. Kevin makes more money than his wife but they split their expenses evenly and Kevin tends to drop money on luxury items.

During the six years he's been married, he's surprised his wife, Dawn, 37, by coming home with purchases-power tools, shoes, and even a Nissan Pathfinder-that he neglected to mention to her beforehand. "She was out of town and I just bought the new car and picked her up at the train station in it," he says. ... "She wasn't too thrilled about the car," Kevin says, "but I paid for it, so she didn't have too big of a problem."

They don't even save for retirement together, which one expert identifies as a potential problem.

[Eve Kaplan of Kaplan Financial Advisors in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey] says, "If one person has enough money to last them to 95 and the other is going to run out at age 70, what happens then?"

That assumes, of course, that both people are really planning on staying together that long.

Christian and Rebecca, the other 50-50 couple in the story, make the same money and split expenses but have different things that they splurge on.

"My wife likes spending on vacations and trips more than I do," Christian says. "But we don't fight about money, because most of the stuff we buy we individually control."

Control is, after all, the issue, right? No one likes giving it up.

Other couples in which there is one major breadwinner have that person take a larger responsibility for shared expenses.

Marc Bliss, 40, a research-deployment manager for IBM in Knoxville, Tennessee, makes significantly less than his wife, Jerilyn, 40, a vice president of communications for a cable-television company. She brings in around 65 percent of the total household income, and so she pays 65 percent of the expenses.

"It doesn't make sense for us to split things evenly. We've used a percentage system for our entire six-year marriage, and we never really argue about money," Marc says.

That, too, seems like as equitable an arrangement as Christian and Rebecca have.

Other dudes, however, seem to be going into such financial arrangements to avoid being nagged by their partners, much like Kevin and his Pathfinder.

"I'm not going to drink cheap beer," [Chad] Randle says. "I'm going to drink Guinness. It's not like I have 10 cases of Guinness in the garage, but even if I did, to hell with her."

Randle pays the mortgage while his wife pays the utilities and their child care expense by the way. He's got company in his random bitterness in John Hall "a fitness professional in Chicago who pays the mortgage and utilities while his wife takes care of her own incidentals and credit cards":

"My wife works at a mortgage brokerage, so she's been financially strapped," he says. "But I'm like, 'Hey, that's on you. Those are your bills. Don't bitch to me about your bills.'"

Um, that doesn't exactly sound as though they're in a partnership as much as a power struggle.

The thing about financial mingling is that money is a proxy for other power struggles in a relationship: i.e., it's never really about money. No matter how you choose to split or spend your individual money (in the absence of pre-nuptial agreements, of course), you're both kind of on the hook legally for one another's credit cards, for the entirety of the mortgage (if it's in both of your names) and all the rest of it, and you'll both be living off the sum total of your retirement savings at the end. But if naming the income stream "his" and "hers" stops him from whining that you bought another pair of shoes and you from bitching at him about the big screen TV he bought, great. And if it doesn't, then it's not really about the shoes or the TV anyway and you should probably spend some of your joint funds on therapy to figure out what it is about before one of you says "to hell with her," or "Don't bitch to me."

The Rise Of The Financial Divorce [Details]