At 10 pm on New Year’s Eve, my brother and his girlfriend showed up at our door with a 1,000-piece puzzle in an unopened box. It was our activity of the night.

It had been a while since I actually worked on a puzzle, and was awake after 10 pm. We didn’t make much progress before heading up to the rooftop for the fireworks. However, in that short amount of time, I still couldn’t help but notice some distinct problem solving styles from each of the four people present. In fact, that’s one of the few things I remembered after recovering from sleep deprivation in a few days.

My brother started sorting pieces by their color scheme. I followed that for a while, but before long I instinctively switched to finding all the side and corner pieces so I could create a frame. My brother’s girlfriend headed directly into facial recognition – the picture has a lot of small characters with faces – and put together 2-3 piece combinations of faces at different locations. My husband picked out the pieces with a particular pattern and began trying to put them together.

It’s amazing to me how we automatically approached this puzzle with different strategies. Perhaps one way is more efficient than the other in a puzzle-solving competition, but they are equally valid. It’s also an advantage that we took different focuses so we were not in each other’s way. Although we didn’t make much progress that night, the foundation we set – the frame, the faces, the sorted pieces, and a partially completed difficult pattern – allowed me to finish the puzzle on my own in less than two days.

Make financial decisions effectively with your spouse

This experience leads me to think more deeply about how we all approach our financial problems differently. I’ve heard multiple industry speakers using solving a puzzle as an analogy for putting together a financial plan. First you identify the picture on the box (ie. The life you want to live), then you look at all the pieces you have in hand and decide how you produce that picture.

If you are married, you will have to make financial decision effectively with your spouse who may or may not have the same problem solving style as you. So how can you make sure you work together as a team, each contributing your strengths, and still cover all the bases?

Here are a few things I discovered through my experience working with couples within their first 10 years of marriage:

#1: Get to know yourself objectively

In a relationship, we often look at the other person’s behavior through our own lenses. We tend to judge other’s actions based on an absolute standard – our standard. However, when you are a third party, you can usually detect the problem in a working relationship easily; not because you side with one over the other, but because you can see the differences with objectivity.

So if you want to be able to figure out why you are not working together as a team, first you need to be able to evaluate yourself from the outside. How do you tend to approach a problem? What kind of skills do you possess? Why do you tend to focus on certain things over others? What in your personal history makes you who you are today?

Some of us are more self-aware than others, and some are better at communicating this awareness than others. Start by placing yourself on that spectrum. Not many of us are good at both, so it’s a journey for all of us. You need to not only know yourself extremely well, but also able to communicate that to your spouse so you can build an effective working relationship.

It’s not always easy to assess yourself objectively and find the language to express yourself. Fortunately, there are quite a few professionally designed assessments that will give you a starting point.

Recently I’ve tried both Kolbe Index and Gallup Strength Finder. I first learned about these tools in the context of finding team members in a work setting. I’m usually skeptical toward these types of tests because I don’t want to be “labeled.” However, I found them helpful as a way to explain the friction in a working relationship. Using standardized attributes, you are able to decipher the similarities and differences between you and your spouse, and find remedies to make your decision process more fruitful.

#2: Accept your spouse’s strengths and weaknesses

It’s easier to ask another person to accept us as who we are than to offer that same acceptance. It’s human nature to want others to conform to our standard.

We can wish all we want that the other party is going to change. But, the fact of the matter is, we have no authority over our spouse. If you accept that constraint, then the reasonable next step is either find a way to work within the constraint, or leave.

Before you can truly accept your spouse’s strengths and weaknesses though, you also need to be able to see him/her objectively. Sometimes this can be even more difficult than seeing ourselves that way. Most of the time, we form relationships because they bring us positive feelings. It’s impossible to view loved ones’, especially your spouse’s, behavior completely devoid of emotions.

If you have children, you may have more practice at this already. I found that a lot of my friends who are more patient with their toddlers have an innate curiosity toward their behaviors. They really want to discover what their children are good at naturally from observations. Through this process, they get to guide them toward their strength and learn to accept their weaknesses.

Similarly, I find it easier to accept my husband’s behavior if I don’t look at it from my point of view. I used to try to guess the motives, but that just made things worse because I’m reasoning through my thought process. The best way to understand the other person is let him/her speak. Preferably make this happen in calm situations and in regular conversations. Ask “why” not with a tone of judgment but out of curiosity. (I confess I’m still not very good at this.)

Of course, this only works if your spouse is able to communicate his/her self-awareness. That is why we all need to go back to #1 to become a better partner.

#3: Work with advisors that compliment your deficiencies

Whether you and your spouse are polar opposites or have many similarities, third party advisors may compliment your working relationship. They can either stand in the middle to pull you closer together, or show you the area that both of you neglect naturally.

Think about this like running a business with two equal partners. How do you pass the stalemate if the two parties can’t move forward with a decision? You would bring in a third party to break the tie. This person doesn’t come in to vote with one over the other. Instead, he/she will bring in new ideas or thought processes so you can see things from a different perspective.

In my practice I constantly run into this situation. Sometimes I don’t even detect any issue between the couple. I simply share how I look at certain financial decisions, and they would say, “Oh! I/We never thought about it like that before!” This is a sign that the couples have a similar decision style and may simply need some new perspective to make good decisions.

Other times couples come to me with existing disagreements. I always invite them to talk about their “why” individually and how they get to the current state from their perspective. Sometimes by going through this step in front of a third party, they suddenly are able to find the common ground they couldn’t see before.

So how do you find the right advisor that compliments you? I think the rule of thumb is perhaps the same as finding a personal trainer – one that will push you and stretch your comfort zone. If you and your spouse are already very similar, you probably don’t want another person who only focuses on what you are good at. On the other hand, if you and your spouse have a great divide, you should find someone who is willing to nudge you closer together rather than stand with one side.

I believe allowing a third party in your working relationship with your spouse is always helpful. We all need an objective eye from time to time. If you are not willing to pay for it, perhaps a trusted friend and mentor can do the job.


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