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Three Birds to Change a Paradigm, Or, How to Talk To Your Partner about Debt and Money Issues

So you’ve admitted that they two of you have a problem. You’ve got high-level debt or even low-ticket-but-annoying debt balances that are ruining your ability to relax, to have a good time, to enjoy each other. There may have been hardships in your partnership, like a job loss or an upside-down home loan that you’re crawling out from under.

And you want to know what to do. You’re tired of the nastiness of fights over who spent more or “too much,” or who had the right to purchase something he or she wanted when while the debt pressure still mounts. You’re sick of the angst that’s always in the air around money, the feeling that there’s never enough, the sense that you’re somehow trapped with your partner in a swirl of money vagueness and pressurized debt.

So what do you do? First, you’ve got to talk about it. Not preach, not psychologize—but talk. How on earth do you do that when you’re 1) already annoyed with each other, 2) fight every time you talk about money, 3) have some sort of tacit agreement to not talk about the disasters until something blows up?

Here’s what you do:

First, give up blame and shame. It does no good. You are where you are now, and that’s where you’re going to begin. It doesn’t matter who’s more at fault for the train wreck of your joint finances. Here’s a newsflash: If you sat back and didn’t say anything constructive about your partner’s overspending, then you’re complicit—a codependent part of the problem. And my guess is, you’ve got your own justifications for your own debting, just like most of us do in debtor couples.

So here’s how to approach your partner. Bring up the issue of your finances by using an “I” statement like, “I know there’s a problem with our lack of money clarity and our debt, and I know it’s a big one. I know we have to look at it together and do something different and I don’t know what that is yet. I’m just letting you know I’m willing to change how we’re living.”

No sermonizing, no being the psychologist, no instant ideas about what the two of you “should” do. Just lay it out on the table for open-hearted viewing and give your partner some time to let it sink in—say, two or three weeks. Don’t expect that because you’re ready, your partner’s ready. Just bring it up for open viewing and discussion with no blaming or shaming. Look at it like open-heart surgery—you’ve got to open up the calcified ribs to take a look at what’s going on in there before you do any surgery.

Think: Three Birds to Change a Paradigm. I use this analogy in my book on page 140—a simple story that helps us all understand the arc of time it takes for our partner to let our willingness to change, and the seriousness of our request, sink in.

Let’s say you’re in fine dining room at a large dinner and you see a bird zip by on the ceiling. You point to the ceiling and say to your neighbor, “Hey, did you see a bird up there?” Your neighbor checks your wine glass and says, “C’mon! No birds in here, Jo—we’re at a formal dinner!” But then, a minute later, you see it again—a bird flits by above the table. You ask again, “I just saw it again! Didn’t you see that?” Your neighbor looks at you incredulously and says, “You okay, Jo? There can’t be any birds in here—we’re in the dining room!” Then you see it a third time—and this time you know you saw it. “Hey everyone!” you say, “There’s a bird in here!”

That’s about the timeline arc of what you should expect from your partner when you bring up your couples’ money issues. Don’t expect that your partner will be immediately on board with you. Just bring it up in a humble spirit, without angst or blame, and lay the unsolved issue on the table. And then, know that it might take bringing it up three times before your partner sees the bird.

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