Relationship strategists Mo and Phindi say conflict about finances in marriage is rarely only about money: it’s usually really about power, secrets, weaknesses, addiction, control and all sorts of other issues.
It’s about communication
We were booked to speak at a wedding two weeks ago.
The bride called Phindi a day before the wedding to add the final piece of information to what they would want us to talk about.
She had accidentally found out that he had been sending money to his parents and had never divulged that to her.
He was paying “black tax”. He wasn’t planning on telling her anyway. In his world, this is what all working young men do. They graduate, work and take care of parents, siblings and generally whoever has a stake in their upbringing.
So he didn’t see it as a big deal and was adamant he would notWe stop doing so after the wedding.
They ended up with a huge disagreement over the issue, with him adamant that this was not up for discussion. And she knew this was going to be one of the high hurdles to jump in their marriage.
She believes that a married man has his wife and kids as his primary responsibility. She is five months pregnant, they were moving to a new house together after the wedding and she was already thinking of the coming responsibilities.
In our book Love Isn’t For Cowards we make the point in one of the chapters that conflict about finances in marriage is rarely only about finances. It’s usually about power, secrets, weaknesses, addiction, control and all sorts of other issues.
And, in our six years of marriage counselling, we are yet to come across a genuine conflict about money that is in fact about money. This case is no different.
Black tax is more about class struggles than race
So-called “black tax” is more about class struggles than race. The need to look after family is not unique to black people.
South Africa is an anomaly among developing countries. Our country is both a developed country with good infrastructure and a country with huge social and economic problems. Hence the need for financial support for our extended families is generally justifiable.
Also consider our African culture. In Western culture you are well within your cultural norms to put your immediate family as your main focus for financial care.
Everyone else generally doesn’t exist. But in African culture, both your parents and siblings, just like your spouse and children, are in the realm of immediate family. Is it right or wrong? Well, the answer becomes very subjective. And is largely based on the values you espouse.
However, as we’ve already said, the vast majority of what appears to be financial conflicts, generally aren’t about the finances at all.
You may find that it’s not that he plans to disregard his immediate family, but that he may be frustrated with the financial situation of his parents. And as a “man”, he is expected not to turn a blind eye.
However, she still feels powerless, and out of the loop.
Imagine for a moment that this is a business environment – people working hard on a common goal. And then one of them is secretly sending money to someone. Wouldn’t that be called stealing?
Money in this case is not the problem. In fact, even his secrecy or not divulging that he is sending money to his parents, is not the main issue. These are just symptoms. The problem is lack of communication. That he closes her down every time she tries to bring this issue up is a major frustration. And by insisting to want to talk about it, she is on the right track.
If you happen to identify with these newly weds’ story – either directly or through someone you know – you can take comfort that at least he is not spending the money in brothels and pubs.
Sit down and talk about it
But if there is a problem with his parents and siblings, whether medical or financial, as his spouse, you need to know about it. This is so that you, as a couple, can decide on what to do.
It could be a similar problem to that of the above couple or your partner could be stashing money away for reasons you’d rather not think about. Whatever it is, the problem is that you found out, and like the bride in this story, you may not have found out from him.
We suggest you insist on sitting down and talking.
Not the angry you, but the hurt and betrayed you. He is stealing from your family funds, after all. If he doesn’t want to talk to you, he needs to clarify if he still wants to be with you.
If he does, then his way of doing things needs to stop now and is never to be repeated again. If he does not want to be with you, well, money transfers is a small price to pay for that knowledge.
If he responds with the phrase that it’s “his” money, you should either seek help from a couples therapist or decide on what you want to do when you’re not counted as part of the decision-making.