She Said He Said: We can’t afford private school with just me working
She Said, He Said
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. When the kids were born, she chose to step away from her successful career to embrace motherhood, which I fully supported. When we both worked full time, we had a lifestyle that left neither of us wanting for much of anything. Her expectations have remained even though our income is almost halved. She has always had some level of focus on our social status and I think this school decision is just 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. We need help talking about this without arguing every time.
Fiscally Stressed Spouse
Lori and Jeff: While most relationship challenges are about money, sex, parenting and chores, the common thread in all of them is a breakdown in meaningful communication. If partners knew what the other really needed to feel validated, safe, secure and valued, many of these relationship issues would resolve through healthy negotiation and compromise.
Lori: You’re quick to label her motivations as superficial, and frankly it’s a cop out. Latching on to the story that she only cares about private school for her own social status is the easiest way to dismiss her preference and then rationalize doing so. 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. Your formerly financially successful wife turned stay-at-home mom is struggling to maintain connection to an identity she worked for many years to establish and is perhaps consciously or unconsciously drawn to becoming a private school mom to rebalance her sense of self. Hmmm, perhaps that’s not actually superficial at all. Is this solution worth your family going broke? 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 has created a perfect opportunity for the two of you to sit down and reassess your financial plan. What values and fears are driving how you spend and save? Where is the overlap in your vision, and where do you diverge? If after exploring together, she remains insistent on private school, she also needs to take half of the responsibility for managing the costs.
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. Being the designated breadwinner comes with a host of responsibilities that can create stress and anxiety. It is understandable that you might feel a little powerless or even somewhat emasculated in that role if there is any doubt that you might not be able to provide the kind experience your wife wants for your kids. Feeling undermined in your efforts to deliver a certain kind of lifestyle for your family can create a sense of frustration and resentment.
Another place to look is whether or not you harbor any hostility about your wife not working and leaving all of that responsibility on your shoulders. With your kids now spending more time at school, are there any sentiments that she should start contributing more to the family 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. You might be a very emotionally intelligent person but, as men, we tend to default to the analytical process of presenting the facts and figures as the only element to resolving a discussion.
Lori and Jeff: Healthy communication and resolution involves being willing to look at the more emotional elements of an experience and validate each other in the truth of that experience, even if you disagree with the content. Drop below the line so that you can each understand the emotional vulnerabilities of a given situation and understand how deeply they can impact your efforts at attempting to communicate.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Visit http://www.aspenrelationshipcoaching.com/blog-1 for all previous She Said, He Said columns.