Sex. Money. In-laws. That’s what we see couples arguing about in therapy. And it isn’t unusual to see couples with more than one of those struggles.
When it comes to sex, differing libidos wreak havoc. Some couples wildly disagree on how often they should have sex. The frequency of sex while dating or in the early years of a relationship is not likely to remain the norm throughout a long relationship. One partner might think sex three times a week should be the norm while the other partner might believe sex two times a month should suffice after the honeymoon period has faded. The frequency of sex is further complicated by work stress, couple conflict, health, and general exhaustion. That’s the tip of the iceberg; we could write a book on conflict stemming from sexual demands, expectations, and jealousy.
Arguments over money often stem from wildly different financial histories and values. Everyone knows a spender and a saver are going to have conflict. But most financial conflict is more nuanced. Financial landmines exist soon after couples begin dating. Who pays for dinners, movies, and trips? What happens when there is a large disparity in income? What if one partner doesn’t work? We’ve worked with couples who like the idea of an allowance for the non-working partner, while others are offended by that suggestion from their partner. What about bank accounts, student loans, retirement savings, helping in-laws? How much money will go for children’s cars, tuition, and first apartments? Merging finances becomes even more complicated in stepfamilies.
When it comes to in-laws, fighting can be particularly intense. Couples often don’t agree on how much time to spend with their respective family members. We know people who believe they should have every Sunday dinner at their parents’ house, partner included. We’ve seen couples shed bitter tears when discussing whether to move away from family for a better job. We’ve seen couples go toe-to-toe over harsh words exchanged with a mother-in-law. And what happens when one partner detests their partner’s sibling or parent? It isn’t pleasant. Combining in-law and money conflict can be disastrous for a couple. We’ve learned from many couples that accepting money from in-laws almost always comes with strings attached.
Let us introduce the Smiths by way of example. The Smiths fight bitterly about sex, money, and in-laws. Susan believes that, because she makes more money than David, she should have a greater say in how their income is spent. David, on the other hand, sees himself as a full partner with equal say in what they purchase and how they pursue their financial dreams. David believes that because sex is only available within the marriage, it should be available when either partner is interested. Susan views sex as a barometer of their relationship and feels no obligation to engage in sex when they have conflict, are tired, or feel overwhelmed. She is also deeply resentful of David’s parents who expect to be involved regularly in their weekend plans. Those three issues contribute to 90% of their arguments.
We happen to believe that couple conflict is unavoidable and not always a negative. Conflict can strengthen your understanding of who your partner is and what they value. We strongly encourage couples to discuss these topics BEFORE they become arguments. We don’t encourage discussing all three topics in one sitting, but gently asking for your partner’s thoughts is a good place to start. The initial conversations are solely for understanding and not for agreement. You want to know your partner’s beliefs and how they were formed before you critique them or provide feedback. Examine your own belief system and be willing to discuss your views with your partner. Relationships bonds can strengthen through understanding even if there isn’t perfect agreement.
Susan and David need to explore their views on family, immediate and extended. Susan should ask David about the connection he feels with his parents. What does that weekend time mean to him? David should ask Susan how she envisions time with their respective parents. Again, early conversations on these sensitive topics are for understanding only. Swaying, persuading, and disagreeing are off-limits in these early discussions. Conversations about their finances might require some professional guidance. The fact that Susan has money and decision-making intertwined is an issue. The underlying issue is power and control in their marriage. That issue is coming up in the form of money disagreements, but the root of that conflict needs exploration. Sexual frequency might just come down to a compromise. They should both share what they need from their sexual experiences together and how they wish to meet their partner’s needs. Whether you are currently in a relationship or would like to be in one someday, we encourage you to examine your views on these topics.
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