Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships — with romantic partners, family members, co-workers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!
Q: I’ve been seeing a guy for a couple months, and things are going great. We get along perfectly, and we have so much in common — except for our spending habits. I’ve always been more on the frugal side, and it’s clear that he’s not. I love that he takes me out and spoils me, but when I think about the relationship long-term, I’m worried his compulsive spending is a bad habit that is a part of him. Is this a deal-breaker? Can I say something without crossing the line?
A: Suze Orman is probably going to balk if she reads this! The answer to your question is more complicated than you think. While it’s understandable that you are concerned about his spending, you have only known him for two months. You are at the point in dating where that initial surge of wonderful romantic feelings starts to wane. The rose-colored glasses slip down and you begin to see things that concern you.
This kind of situation reminds me of that musical, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change!” Its plot is about the trials and tribulations of the “mating game.” The musical’s name clearly describes what I, as a therapist, and so many of my colleagues see happen in the first few months of dating. People tend to fall in love with a new partner who is different and touches them in ways past loves had not. They find this so attractive and get excited about the new love. Suddenly, they are surprised to learn “the perfect one” is different from them in some important way. They believe the way they are is right and insist that the new partner change!
If that’s what is going on with you and your new guy, I want to help save you from the trap of trying to convince him to change. It could be that you’re right: This money issue is a very serious problem. In order to trust him enough to move forward, you may need to have very a serious discussion with him about your diverse perspectives on the meaning of money. Or it could be that you’re overreacting: You’ve only known him for two months. You’re coming out of that initial romantic haze we all feel when we fall for a new love. You’re beginning to see that you and he are human beings with differences. That can be a rude awakening, which causes us to want to make the other person change.
When we find ourselves attracted to another person, it is most often for the ways they are different from us. In his book, Getting the Love You Want, noted relationship therapist Harville Hendrix posits we are drawn to people who complement us. They touch those places in us that need to be developed. In so doing, they meet some important psychological need(s) that went unmet in our childhood relationships with our parents, and in our relationships with past loves.
Maybe, in part, he is drawn to you because you are amazingly competent and independent and he did not experience his parents and past partners in that way. Perhaps you are drawn to him because he is the first person in your life to focus so much on you. Maybe this new romance is helping both of you to feel and be different than you were in past relationships in ways that feel quite wonderful. If this or something like this is the case, your differences may be a big part of why you are drawn to one another and falling in love.
Two months into dating, you state “we get along perfectly” except that he is “irresponsible with money.” Remember, at this point, you have known each other only as new romantic partners in the first couple of months in a relationship. Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher reminds us that, during that time, our bodies release a cascade of feel-good hormones, such as oxytocin, that cause us to feel that way. No couple gets along perfectly, except maybe during that this time when they feel so strongly attracted to one another.
Don’t be alarmed as you discover your differences. Leading relationship researcher John Gottman found that, on average, partners in happy marriages will disagree on how to approach 69 percent of the issues they face (such as parenting, romance, budgeting, managing a home, etc.). Each partner has a different personality with a different set of fundamental needs, which causes them to take diverse positions on how to handle major issues. Partners only find exact same solutions that work for both 31 percent of the time. Gottman went on to find partners in thriving marriages know how to dialogue about their differences, rather than change one another.
Before you call him out, ask yourself the following questions: Is it appropriate to talk about these issues two months into dating or is that too heavy? Have you been blinded by your romance, causing you to feel shocked by this discovery? Could you be overreacting? Is the way he handles money just different from you or is it really a problem? Does he just have other priorities, such as living in the now and making you feel special?
If you truly believe that this is a very serious problem, and feel it is already a deal breaker for you, have the more serious conversation about your diverse perspectives on the meaning of money in your lives. If not, talk about the part of your concern that is relevant now, i.e. you feel uncomfortable when he takes you to extravagant places and spends a lot of money on you. Ask him for what you would like instead. Either way, when you speak with him, make sure that you remember differences make for attraction and differences make a relationship. When you talk about this issue, dialogue in a respectful manner. (These Conflict Blueprints from The Gottman Institute help couples do so.) Don’t try to change each other. Instead, try to understand and build a relationship, and maybe a life together, that’s about both of you.
More from Asking for a Friend here.