When couples cite reasons for divorce or breakup, there is a surprisingly short list of usual suspects. Money, and financial decisions, though not always the primary reason, is a frequent offender, often identified as the reason for ending a romantic relationship. Heading into tax season, it seemed appropriate that we talk about this common culprit.
The challenge is that any finite resource, whether money, bagels, even the decision of which show to watch on television–assuming you want to watch it together–has the potential to become the subject of a conflict. Vying for power over resources is often the cause of international conflicts, even wars, so while on a smaller scale, it’s not surprising that scarcity (or even perceived scarcity) can frequently also lead to conflict in our relationships.
As children, we had to learn to share. It was not intuitive, in fact, where we perceived scarcity, it was downright counterintuitive. We had one cupcake, one ball, one fill-in-the-blank…and at least two kids staring longingly at the coveted item. In some cases, like the ball, it was a fairly simple step toward sharing. After all, as much fun as it can be bouncing a ball by ourselves, it’s even more fun to throw it back and forth. The cupcake is an example of a tougher series of steps. After all, you can’t both eat the cupcake, unless you split it. And then you each get a smaller portion than if you hadn’t decided to split it up. We therefore have to learn to share, learn to compromise, so that, even in situations where neither of you get exactly what you want, you both get equal portions of most of what you want.
That skill comes in handy all throughout life, as we encounter situations first on the playground with other kids, then as we grow up, at work, in social situations, and of course the reason we’re exploring it, in our intimate relationships. The hope is that, if we are pursuing a lifelong, committed relationship, we will have had enough practice by then to be quite skilled at compromise and sharing.
Then again, resources make us feel safe. Security for many of us comes from knowing that we have enough. Since “security” is a crucial human need, it’s not negotiable. So fighting it would be pointless. Once you know your partner (or colleagues at work, fighting to make a business profitable) feels their security is being threatened, they will be less apt to compromise. So it’s up to us to frame whatever issue is at hand ourselves, and in so doing, be the leader.
But as that leader, we aren’t dictating to a subordinate. Rather, leading the discussion, offering a frame of reference that’s compelling to our partner or colleagues. A big part of that is understanding how they want to use the finite resources. In this discussion, it’s money, but it could be anything. Whenever you have two people or more with differing values, you will have at least moments of disagreement when it comes to priorities. This naturally includes how to expend finite resources. Though as you listen and come to understand how the other(s) feel, what they would prefer, you are poised to elicit information you need. For instance, why do they want to spend the budget that way? What do they believe it will gain? What value is driving that for them? Do you share any of that with them or are they the only one? Either way, compromise may be necessary, looking for ways you can both (or all, as the case may be) can have the majority of what you want.
This is much like when we were children and had to agree on the game to play. Of course, that was our learning lab, where we developed these skills. Now, as adults, we have to put them into practice.
Of course, when we speak of finite resources, many of us begin to feel greed seeping in. The problem of course is that in a collaborative environment like your home, where you and your spouse must decide to do with the bonus check, greed rarely goes well. Negotiation, compromise, are the orders of the day. And “subliminal influence” sure could come in handy at a time like that! Just saying.
Still, as we play with concepts like these and how we might use them, (and consider a training in which we could learn to apply them actively) we can use a discussion like this one to get to know our colleagues or our spouse even better. Learning their values, their priorities, can only help you. Not only in this negotiation, but in all those that follow.