A Matter of Perspective

I just finished painting my home office. It feels more inviting now. The questionable sailboat wallpaper border is gone, all the holes from previous wall hangings are filled and the colours are warmer, more “my style” than what was there before. I now enjoy being in here much more than I did last week.

Interestingly the painted walls are all that has changed. The furniture layout is exactly the same. I put the same artwork back in the same places. Heck, even the same paper clutter is back. Why then do I feel so differently about the space?

A few years a go in my Marriage Foundations seminar one of the participants complained to me about an issue he was having with his wife. It seems that she wanted to be in charge of the household finances. Unfortunately he wasn’t a big fan of how she was doing the job, and felt that he should just do it himself and be done with it. He was keen to get me to agree with him and give him permission to act on his desire. Instead I told him this story.

(Note, if you ever attend one of my workshops or seminars, you may hear this same story with totally different names. That’s not a mistake. As a coach I take my clients’ privacy very seriously. I purposely change various details like names, genders, geography, chronology etc. in my stories all the time to preserve anonymity. And I rarely remember exactly how I’ve told the story in the past. The important thing to pay attention to is the overall message.)

Once there was a woman named Susan. She was about 24 when she married her college beau Jeff. Susan was raised in a Christian home and was very comfortable with allowing Jeff total control of the family finances.

Over the years she started feeling some concern with many situations in the house. Utility bills with Urgent printed on them in bold red letters started arriving in the mail. Her debit and credit cards were sometimes getting declined at the store. She asked her mother what to do, and was told that Jeff was the man of the house and it was his responsibility to handle the money and not to nag him about it. She was certain that it would all work out.

Of course, it didn’t. It turned out that Jeff had a major gambling addiction. This led him to spend all of their savings, jack up all their credit cards to the limit and to default on the mortgage. Devastated, Susan ended the marriage, homeless and under a crushing burden of debt.

Eventually Susan sorted out her financial situation. Got a great job and put her life back on track. She vowed that she would always be in charge of her finances, no matter what, she would never be in that situation again.

Some time later Susan met Brian, a successful accountant. They fell in love and decided to marry. When the issue of handling the family finances came up, Susan was adamant that she would be in charge, despite Brian’s expertise in that area. Brian was well aware of Susan’s past hardship and asked only that Susan keep him up to date each month with the money situation.

After I finished I asked the fellow how he felt about his wife’s handling of the finances now.

He was stunned and it took him a few moments to regain his composure. He realized that he really didn’t care about how she handled the money (he trusted her and there was open communication) he just cared about getting certain numbers at a certain time so he could file his expense reports for work.

He later told me that once he explained that to his wife she made sure to have those numbers ready for him each month when he needed them.

What changed in that relationship? The roles stayed the same, but the resentment was gone. All that changed was their perspective on the situation. As soon as he understood that his wife might have a reason for insisting on handling the finances (It was a second marriage for both of them) and that he actually didn’t have a problem with her doing it, he was fine. Once she understood that he didn’t want to stop her from handling the money, he just needed certain info at a certain time, she was fine.

Just like how a simple coat of paint has enabled be to feel more at home in my office, a subtle change in perspective can free us from a host of judgements that hurt our marriages.

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