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Ron L. Deal

Everyone knows that couples have disagreements about money matters. But when the practical challenges of money management are combined with the complications of stepfamily living, money issues can be volatile.

“I just don’t feel like his partner,” said Barbara. “Lloyd controls everything and I don’t even know how much we have nor do I contribute to investment decisions. It’s like the money is all his, just in case we don’t make it. It’s been that way from day one when he asked for a prenuptial agreement. How can I feel like his partner when I’m excluded from this part of his life?”

Sometimes money conflicts are about values or power and control; other times they are about fear. Barbara had access to all the money she and her children needed, and they were well cared for. However, in her heart, she didn’t feel that Lloyd was completely committed to her. His unwillingness to let her have some say in his material wealth was evidence to her of this struggle—especially since her husband didn’t have any problem sharing financial decisions with his first wife. When asking for more decision-making power regarding their money, what Barbara was really seeking was emotional security and a permanent commitment from her husband. But that can be difficult when money is paired with pain.

When Money Is Paired with Pain

Money issues in stepfamily marriage are sometimes paired with pain from the past; they become a detriment to the present marriage when negative behavioral patterns are set in place. Underlying Lloyd’s need for a prenuptial agreement and control over their finances was a ghost who haunted him with distrust, insecurity, and the fear of losing control. The only thing that kept him from growing increasingly anxious about his future was staying in control of the money and investments he brought into the marriage. Besides, in his mind, his generosity toward Barbara and her children was more than enough provision; it shouldn’t matter to her, he thought, that her name isn’t on the deed to the house or cars. But it did matter to Barbara, a lot.

Overcoming Fear, Risking Trust, Choosing Commitment

The challenge for many stepcouples is deciding whether fair will be defined through the lens of pain or hope. If decisions are being made through the lens of pain, then one or both will choose a path of self-preservation (withholding assets is a way of withholding yourself). If the decisions and the relationship are viewed through a lens of hope, risks and an investment in the marriage are likely taken. This requires trust.

In our book The Remarriage Checkup, David Olson and I review five stages of trust previously identified by Patricia Schiff Estess[1]:

  1. The Rose-Colored Glasses Stage. In those first romantic moments, money talk seems crass or unimportant because the strength of love “will handle everything” (naiveté) or because couples believe there will be no money conflicts (ignorance).
  2. The Don’t-Rock-the-Boat Stage. Feelings of resentment or anger surface. Frequently thoughts such as, “Why should I resent his paying alimony? I knew about it before we got married,” or “I can’t stand her cheapness when it comes to gift-giving” aren’t voiced for fear that any stress would put too much pressure on the fragile new union.
  3. The Lay-It-On-the-Table Stage. Couples painfully express their concerns to each other, feeling it’s OK to be honest, to argue about spending priorities and to speak candidly about their feelings, frustrations and fears surrounding finances. A foundation of trust is being laid, albeit roughly.
  4. The Getting-It-Together Stage. The couple has arrived at a mutually agreed upon lifestyle and has established an effective method of handling finances and making financial decisions. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve commingled funds, just that they have agreed on contributions—both monetary contributions and contributions of time—and that they have a system in place for managing both jointly owned and separately owned property.
  5. The Achieving Stability Stage. The couple reels-in control of finances. Despite the ultimate instability of anyone’s financial position, they now feel comfortable adjusting their goals or spending patterns, as circumstances require. Their perspectives are integrated. They can handle change.

In addition to integrating their daily and practical financial patterns, did you notice what else is growing beneath the surface? Trust. Each and every stage requires a choice to risk the unknown as the two come closer in heart and mind, but eventually the choice to risk gives birth to confidence and trust. And every couple needs that.

[1] Patricia Schiff Estess, Money Advice for Your Successful Remarriage (ASJA Press: Lincoln, NE, 2001)

Adapted from The Remarriage Checkup by Ron L. Deal and David H. Olson, Bethany House, 2010; used with permission. Ron L. Deal is President of Smart Stepfamilies and author of a series of DVD’s and books for stepfamilies.