This week there was an excellent column from the New York Times’ Your Money writer Ron Lieber outlining five issues that can create major financial distress for couples. They are almost all inevitable and unavoidable – Reduced Circumstances, Mistakes, Parents, Children, and Uncertainty – yet Lieber explains, and I agree, they can seem so vague and distant a couple can easily avoid discussing them until reality hits. As one expert in the piece says, “You can either disengage and get divorced, or reengage.” Spouses can be disengaged until they end up in a contentious, expensive divorce. Even if you are divorcing, you and your spouse are never too far gone to reengage and create a mutually beneficial financial solution.
But how does a couple who is finding these problems after years or decades supposed to reengage after the problem’s created, and fingers are being pointed? Leiber offers a few remedies to specific examples of tough financial decisions for parents or kids who need support, but the specific solution is almost beside the point. To prepare for the really tough times, or to prevent them from tearing you and your spouse further apart, you both need to know how to have awkward conversations.
First, identify why you feel like this will be a difficult conversation – your own shame, your spouse’s response? Think about what your spouse’s response might be and if you can do anything to improve the situation, but be honest about what’s going on. Sugarcoating conversation about how you maxed out your credit (“Remember that amazing place I took you for your birthday?”) or putting it off until she tries to use her card are only going to make the conversation harder. As soon as you need to have the conversation, have it! Lay it all out on the table, listen to your spouse’s response, and then be ready to problem solve.
As an example, let’s say that you have two kids who are twenty one and seventeen. Your older daughter is attending a private school which you and your husband financed with a combination of cash, student loans, and a scholarship she earned. Your younger son is applying for schools now, but scholarship money is much harder to come by and since you and your spouse have separated you don’t have the resources to help him out. You believe your children should get equal support, your spouse believes that if your son can’t find enough scholarships or grants he will have to go to a less expensive school.
1. Wait until he is accepted to his first pick and submits his paperwork. When the bill for the deposit comes, have a huge blow up over how it will be paid for, causing your son to feel to blame for your conflict.
2. Set up a time to talk to your spouse about this before your son begins to apply for schools. Start with, “I’m afraid we might not be able to help with Steve’s tuition the way we did with Angie’s. I understand that you feel he needs to find the rest of his tuition money himself, and I want to help him more. Given the situation we’re in now, can we discuss what kind of contributions we both think we can make?”
Starting an awkward conversation can dramatically reduce your anxiety and start a pattern of having direct, productive communication. Again, it’s never too late to start. Read the previous Your Money column about how to talk about money before marriage here, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/24/your-money/24money.html, before you enter into your next relationship. You can also learn more about how to handle your personal finances before a divorce here: http://www.divorce360.com/divorce-articles/finance/general/divorce-planning-5-financial-tips.aspx?artid=782.
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