Dear Lori and Jeff
My wife is dead set on sending our kids to private school next year and we simply can’t afford it. She decided to leave her successful career and embrace motherhood when the children were born. I was a strong supporter of this decision. We had a life that was comfortable for both of us, even though we worked full-time. Even though our income is nearly half, her expectations have remained the same. She has always been focused on our social status. This school decision is another example. Her friends’ kids go to this school, and I think she has been feeling left out. I’m not willing to go broke so she can feel socially elite. It is important that we have a way to communicate this without getting into arguments.
Fiscally stressed spouse
Lori and Jeff. While many relationship problems revolve around money, sex parenting and chores and the common thread is a breakdown of meaningful communication. Healthy negotiation and compromise would solve many of these problems.
Lori: You’re quick to label her motivations as superficial, and frankly it’s a cop out. To dismiss her preference for private school is easy. Then you can rationalize her decision by saying that she only cares about it for her social status. It also highlights the fact that you haven’t actually asked her why she believes private school is so important. Let’s assume for a moment that you’re correct. The wife of a financially successful husband is now a stay at home mom. She struggles to keep in touch with the identity that she built over many years and is perhaps unconsciously drawn towards becoming a private school mother to balance her self-image. Hmmm, perhaps that’s not actually superficial at all. This solution is worth the risk of your family going bankrupt? No. But until you know what the real emotional and psychological needs are that are represented by this choice, you’re going to remain at odds with each other.
This conflict created an ideal opportunity for you to sit down with each other and reassess how your financial plan is working. What values and concerns are driving your spending and saving habits? Is there any overlap between your vision and what are your differences? If she insists on private school after all the exploration, she must also take half the responsibility for managing the cost.
Jeff: While I agree with Lori about your knee-jerk reaction to assess your wife’s intentions, I am also aware of some deeper layers that might be at play for you. There are many responsibilities that come with being the designated breadwinner. This can cause anxiety and stress. If you are unable to provide the type of experience that your wife desires for your children, it is natural to feel powerless and even emasculated. You might feel frustrated or resentful if you fail to provide a certain lifestyle for your family.
A second place to consider is whether you have any resentment about your wife’s inability to work and the fact that you are unable or unwilling to take on all the responsibility. Are there any feelings that your children should be contributing more to the family’s income? I would suggest you try to connect to your below-the-line, emotional layers you may be experiencing before you judge your wife’s motives simply on the above-the-line content. While you may be an emotionally intelligent person, we men are more prone to resort to the analytical process of presenting facts and figures to resolve a dispute.
Lori and Jeff: Healthy communication requires that you are open to looking at the emotional aspects of an experience and validating each other in the truth. You can both understand and accept the emotional vulnerability of the situation, and the impact they have on your communication.
Lori and Jeff are married and licensed psychotherapists at Aspen Relationship Institute. Visit http://www.aspenrelationshipcoaching.com/blog-1 All previous columns of She Said He Said.