It’s not just about you.

Forget the wealth, every time I hear the old adage that “money issues” are the leading cause for marital strife and divorce I’m reminded about how really lucky I am.

Money’s never really been an issue between my wife and myself, even when we were just starting out and didn’t really have all that much. We watched our spending, and yet we spent enough to be comfortable. She worked a second job for a while which not only helped but gave us both an additional sense of comfort about our ability to live within our means. We borrowed money from her parents for my car, and then later borrowed from mine for hers. (Both were paid back in full, with interest.)

We’ve gone back and forth between the old “one checkbook or two”, or better yet the, “your money, my money and our money” debate. Even today we may have coalesced accounts, but there’s still a sense of “yours, mine and ours”, though what gets used when and for what tends to be very loose.

But I don’t think we’ve ever argued about money, regardless of how much we’ve had.

As I said, I’m a really lucky guy.

Our money management styles are very compatible. Everything from how much we think is spending “a lot”, to our tolerance for risk. Not identical, but very, very compatible.

And it’s been like that both before, and after wealth arrived.

The point of all that is simply this: when it comes to money management, I believe that past performance is a strong indicator for future success. And I believe that the arrival of wealth more often than not will make money-related relationship issues worse, not better, unless you consciously acknowledge it and work at it.

Sadly, the fact that my wife and I are able to maintain a fairly healthy status quo is the exception, I think, not the rule.

And yes, it takes some work.

A lot of people think that becoming wealthy will erase any money problems with their spouse. I mean, once there’s enough money for what we need, what’s there to argue about?

There’s a bigger pile of money to argue about, that’s what.

I’m certain you’ve heard of once happily married lottery winners that are, within a few years, not so happily divorced. It’s the “fortune” part of “fame and fortune” that puts many couples at risk.

Many things can happen when wealth arrives. A common reaction is that differences in money management style, previously somewhat similar, become magnified. Perhaps someone who’s slightly risk adverse might become downright paranoid, irrationally afraid to lose it all as quickly as it came. At the other end of the spectrum a habitual over-spender might now be given much more resource to work with, and overspend even that.

Whatever the differences between the two, they are magnified, often greatly. 

And each spouse is left bewildered and angry, wondering why money somehow changed the other.

The issue isn’t that things and people change, they can and do. The issue is that it can drive spouses further apart unless they’re approaching their newfound situation rationally, and together.

The other risk that couples run revolves around the implications of wealth arriving ostensibly because of the work or luck of primarily one of the two. For example one spouse gets a job that turns out to provide a wealth of stock options at some later time. Or perhaps the years of work put in by one of the two finally begins to pay off in a big way.

The issue here isn’t about specific ways of rationalizing it.

The issue here is about acknowledging it.

The issue here is about realizing that it could be an issue.

The issue here is about making sure that whatever the feelings are that result from the discrepancy, they’re somehow dealt with. Openly and up front.

The “other spouse” might feel resentful, or under-appreciated, or somehow left out. Perhaps they don’t feel worthy of participating in the good things that can follow the arrival of wealth. Perhaps they don’t feel they’re getting their fair share of either the wealth, or acknowledgement for how they did participate.

Perhaps the lucky one feels particularly entitled, or somehow resentful of his or her spouse’s lack of individual fortune. Perhaps he or she sees the wealth as “more mine” because it was due to his or her efforts that it arrived.

The specifics don’t matter. Really.

What matters is that when and as wealth arrives you do what’s right <em>for you as a couple</em> to acknowledge your newfound positions, and decide how you <em>as a couple</em> are going to deal with it all.

A small example.

My wife and I have “a number”, or at least an order of magnitude, that if we’re about to spend over that amount we at least mention it to the other. If it feels like we need to, we discuss it. Rarely is the decision to spend reversed, but we’ve both participated. For where we are financially, the number is probably lower than where you would think. In our relationship it’s a sign of respect and an implicit acknowledgement that we’re a couple, and that this is our wealth, not just mine or hers.

It works for us.

What’s kind of surprising is that I don’t think we ever really explicitly choose a number – it just happened of its own accord. Even as it’s changed over time, it seems to have changed in unison without anything really explicit.

But we do acknowledge it.

And ultimately that’s the point:

Don’t just let wealth just happen to you and your spouse.

Whatever the approach to money management between you and your spouse, acknowledge it. Work it. Make a conscious decision to treat your newfound wealth together.

If you don’t … well, as we’ve all heard, money problems between you and your spouse are probably the fastest way to “screw it up”.

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