Sarah was mad at Tom for spending money on a new gun.
She has been trying to manage on a tight budget for years and the kids needed new school boots with a long, wet spring just around the corner. Tom argued the money came from the portion of the budget they could both dip into for personal spending.
The argument went around and around until the question was asked: So just how much do you both think is an appropriate amount for personal spending?
Tom’s reply was $200 a month, and that that was an acceptable amount and within the budget. Sarah, who was more frugal and always felt safer with a float, responded that $40 was acceptable. The difference of $160 was a wide spread in the interpretation of personal spending out of a shared budget.
The money looks like it may be the conflict in this story, but it really is about personal needs and values.
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Sarah said she was intent on ensuring that her family was always well cared for because she vowed to never be poor again. She remembers the tough days growing up in the inner city and had no idea how much it would take to run a farm. The little bit of budget set aside for personal spending was of great comfort to her and she was reluctant to spend it. She made do for herself and expected the same from Tom, a third-generation farmer.
Tom shared the same value of ensuring his family was well cared for and appreciated that he and Sarah could make the budget work. Like Sarah, he also was careful about the little set aside in the budget for personal use and although he respected it, he did tend to use it all up. He knew what that component of the budget was for and stuck to it. Why Sarah was upset at him was baffling.
Tom and Sarah both shared the same value of caring for their family but had different interpretations of personal spending within the budget. Once they could recognize this they could start to discuss what they believed that budget was for, listening to each other and their story. It was important that both were heard. Tom put that money in the bank and felt he deserved the gun. Sarah respected the money and felt better when there was always a little extra.
During the conversation, more information came to the surface.
Sarah wanted to do something special with the banked money at the end of the year and was planning a surprise for Tom. Tom wanted the gun as their oldest son was ready to take firearms training and could then go hunting with the men. Both were eyeing the account with good intention and both had the best interests of someone else at heart.
At this point, the solution may or may not be found.
The outcome is really up to Tom and Sarah, and they get to choose the path that best meets their needs. By bringing out the rest of the story which included Sarah and Tom’s different cultural background and their current and future needs, the couple could move forward. In the end, now that the gun was bought, Tom offered to stay out of the account until Sarah had what she felt she needed for her surprise.
Whether it is $200 or $200,000 in question is not of relevance.
In conflicts that are old and hurtful, sometimes it helps for a third party to simply ask a few questions. This only works when there has been an invitation for that third party to be part of the discussion.
Think of the possible outcomes had Tom’s father, who loved hunting, had got involved, calling Sarah “controlling” and hinting to Tom that it was “a man’s right” to buy what he wanted.
Or if Sarah had listened to her friend in the city, the one who was strongly against hunting. Both outside parties could have caused conflicting emotions and fogged the cognitive or reasoning ability of Sarah and Tom, who owned the conflict.
Staying out of the conflict is likely the toughest part of families and partnerships, of leadership, and of functioning communities. Only when we are asked to be a third party, can we do so and even then it is the stakeholder’s ownership of the conflict that ultimately solves it.
Had either Tom or Sarah not been honest in expressing their needs, the conflict would be ongoing. Had a third party introduced a solution, one party may not have been heard. Had they individually sought support with the like minded, the battle lines would have become longer.
Contrary to our human nature, we do not own the conflicts of others nor do we own the outcome which may not mirror our personal values.
When asked, we should listen carefully. And when the process is going well, step back and allow the Toms and Sarahs of our world the dignity of finding their own path forward.