Every couple has one core fight that replays over and over again, in different disguises, over the course of their relationship. In this series, couples analyze the origin and mechanics of their One Fight. To pitch your own One Fight (we’ll also accept pseudonyms, if necessary), email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jordana and Sean Williams have been married for 14 years and live in Astoria, New York, with their two children.
Sean: You and I have a very different approach to the way we handle our money, and I think there are two ways we generally look at that difference. You see it as me being somewhat irresponsible and careless while you are saving for a rainy day. To me, it feels like I’m using the money we have to enjoy the things we can and you feel an incredible responsibility to account for every single dollar spent. Classic marital fight.
Jordana: I don’t actually think you’re irresponsible. We just have different default settings. You’re more inclined to assume that the more expensive version of something is better, whereas I need to be convinced that there’s tangible value in upgrading.
Sean: I remember going shopping for appliances for our new house. This would have been about 13 years ago, we were walking through a P.C. Richards or something and every single appliance we looked at, I wanted the high-end one and you kept insisting that we should go with the least expensive functional model. Since I’m the one who does a majority of the kitchen work, I kept pushing for the things I thought would work the best and you were just miserable at the thought that we would spend that much money.
It came to a head when we looked at the washers and dryers. You understood that we needed the large washer—we expected children and were preparing for it—but you thought we might be able to save money on a small dryer. Your parents, who are really careful with money as well, pointed out that you can’t have a different size washer and dryer or the clothes you put in the first won’t fit in the second.
You said maybe we could line-dry some of the stuff.
Jordana: Boy do you love telling that story.
Sean: I do! It makes me look like I’m the rational one!
Jordana: Look, shopping for big-ticket items is emotionally fraught for me. My heart speeds up even remembering that day. We had just made the unfathomably huge purchase of a HOUSE, which then necessitated a series of additional expenses. There were rows upon rows of appliances at various price points, and I couldn’t grasp the functional differences between the high- and low-end models. I felt scared and out of my depth, so my ancestral shtetl brain took over. Spending carefully and denying myself luxuries is my way of telling the vengeful money gods to point their evil eye elsewhere.
It should be noted that I recognized the irrationality of my thinking and we bought the same-size washer and dryer like some kind of Rockefellers.
Sean: Although it should be said that we’ve been filling it with cheap children’s clothes and hand-me-downs ever since. Because the truth is this isn’t as much about money as it is about capital of all kinds. You’re forever afraid of using up favors or patience or access the same way you worry about money. When we have a nighttime function to go to, you get babysitting that begins at the exact moment we need to leave and ends when we’ve sprinted home from the event. And that’s not about money, since very often it’s one of the grandparents who is doing the babysitting! You just don’t want to “use up” the babysitting resource even though it’s basically what our parents love more than anything else.
Jordana: This is, in fact, a thing I do. Arranging our nights out and figuring out who will babysit is also a thing I do. (You’re welcome!) Look, it’s complicated. I’m hyperaware that our kids are our responsibility. When our parents or friends watch them for us, that is hugely generous on their part. I recognize that they love spending time with the kids, but my dad, for instance, would freely admit that he also loves beating the traffic home with an abiding passion. I’m trying to honor their contribution to making our busy lives work by not taking unfair advantage.
I will also admit that I’m a little crazy in this regard. I’m a reflexive maximizer. I want to squeeze as much fun and work and experiences of all sorts into any given day. Being a working mom who also tries to sustain various not-particularly-remunerative creative pursuits has exacerbated my more frenetic impulses. But I think I’m generally pretty responsive when you point out that I’m saddling us with an overambitious schedule. I’m usually willing to recalibrate and allow some room for downtime.
Sean: It’s true that you respond when I point out how crazy our schedule is, but that response is almost always, “Nah, it’ll be fine!” And two hours later we’re sprinting to make an 8 o’clock curtain.
It’s also true that some big-ticket items, when left to me, end up being disasters. One of the stupidest things I ever did was hire a cleaning service without telling you, thinking it would be a big surprise. I didn’t do the research carefully, it was a fortune, and when you saw the bill you very calmly asked me not to speak to you for a little while.
Jordana: It’s funny. I never think about that. You’re always the one who remembers it. I was definitely super mad that day, though.
Sean: Of course I remember it, it’s about the maddest you’ve ever been at me. But I think part of it was because I was pretending like this was a big surprise for you, when I’m the one who works from home and has the kids after school. And that’s the thing with the babysitting: I want to spend time just me and you, instead of having another hour with the kids. It’s not that I don’t love them, it’s that I’ve had them for four hours sometimes by the time you get home and I’m ready for some Husband-Not-Dad time.
Jordana: I totally hear that, but I’d love for you to recognize that coming home for 45 minutes between work and an evening event is sometimes my only chance to cuddle and check in with the kids. What’s hilarious, of course, is that we’ve devoted all these words to arguing about babysitting and we don’t really go out that much.
Jumping back to the luxury vs. basic issue, I think there’s something else at work for me there. Having nice things—especially with kids in the house—stresses me out far beyond the moment of purchase. If we get something fancy and then don’t like it, I feel incredibly foolish. If a cheap thing isn’t great, at least it was cheap! And if we get a fancy thing that we love, then I feel beholden to it in a weird way, pressured to maintain it and keep it in pristine shape. Cheap/used/pre-disastered items are much more relaxing for me. Then, of course, we have people come over and I get embarrassed that our house isn’t nicer, but that’s a story for another day.
Sean: See, this is fascinating to me because I think your motivation has as much to do with gaming the system as it does with getting the best deal. You want a deal, you want to maximize return and most importantly, you don’t ever want to get taken for a ride. This is best exemplified by your approach to Disney World. The tickets are expensive, the hotels are expensive, the trip is expensive, so we maximize every single second we’re there, flying from one park to another, taking swim breaks to make sure we use the pool, replacing meals with gigantic pretzels …
And let me be perfectly clear here, you are also maximizing our fun. We love the trips to Disney. But I think your motivation in making the plans is driven by the same motivation that makes you avoid a pricey hors d’oeuvre—you don’t want someone to make a fool out of you by suckering you into spending money and not getting the maximum return. If Disney is gonna make you spend the money then DAMN IT, we’re gonna have the largest amount of possible fun.
Jordana: Your characterization is maybe a little harsh, but it’s not far off. Remember last spring break when I couldn’t get off work, and you took the kids to visit family in Iowa? I called one afternoon and the little imps gleefully informed me, “We’re still in our pajamas and we haven’t accomplished anything today!” They were overjoyed to escape Mom’s Tyranny of Maximal Fun.
I don’t think I’ll ever shed these impulses entirely (especially because they’ve led us to some good things over the years), but I’m trying to be more self-aware about it. I can usually recognize when I’m being pulled in an irrational or penny-wise and pound-foolish direction, and we’ve gotten way better about talking about it without getting upset.
Sean: Also, let’s be perfectly honest—I spent all the money I made before we got married and since we’ve been together, I’ve managed to save and be responsible. And while the kids loved that trip to Iowa, they loved the trip to New Zealand even better, which you did solo and where you kept all the fun-trains running on time. I’m always going to wish you could relax and enjoy spending money more, but I’m also always grateful when I go to the ATM and there’s actually money in there.
Jordana: Look how kind and rational we both are! Let’s see if we can keep that up while we try to find a new set of dining room furniture that is attractive, reasonably priced, of excellent quality, and won’t get destroyed by repeated cereal spills.
Sean: And as we search, we’ll continue to use the 15-year-old cheap Ikea table that is still perfectly functional. We must be doing something right.
Read other entries in Slate’s Our One Fight series: