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How to deal with the financial bully in your life

December 18, 2013: 5:00 AM ET

Financial bullying in relationships is more common than you think. Here's how to spot it—and how to avoid it.

By Jean Chatzky

Do you have a bully in your household?

Do you have a bully in your household?

FORTUNE -- We all know that couples fight about money. In fact, as many fights are debt-centric, the holidays are high season for knock down drag out financial brawls.

But the fact that one in 10 married folks thinks their spouse is a financial bully? That headline, from a recent CreditKarma.com survey, was news to me—which makes me think it'll be news to you, too (I've been covering this world for 20 years.)

What exactly is financially bullying? When we talk about teen bullying or online bullying or workplace bullying, it's when a person in a position of power intimidates another person to do what they want. Financial bullying is very much the same, says Relationship Therapist Argie J. Allen, Ph. D. Director of Clinical Training at Drexel University's Couple and Family Therapy Department. "Financial bullying is all about power and control. So one spouse might be particularly dictatorial – and intimidating -- over how the other handles money. It's also a sign of trouble to come. "The less financial freedom a person has, the more vulnerable they are in the relationship.

Before we take a look at the specific bullying behaviors (CreditKarma isolated five) and what to do about them, let's dispense with some pre-conceived notions. According to the research, bullying is an equal opportunity offense.  Just as many men feel bullied as women. It's actually more common among the younger members of the Millennial and Y generations than it is among Xers and Boomers. And, it happens across the economic spectrum. Lisa Hatcher, a financial planner in Richmond, VA who has written on the subject, says she sees it among six-figure earners as well as people who earn substantially less.

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Here are four of the most common bullying behaviors – and advice for how to deal:

  • Makes me feel guilty for my shopping habits. First, consider whether or not you have anything to feel "guilty" about. Whether you're buying groceries for your family – or gifts for everyone on your holiday list – knowing you're shopping smartly, not going overboard and keeping within the family budget, can help you shut down a bully's ability to make you feel guilty. Ask the bully to switch roles for a week – asking someone who never grocery shops or buys clothes for the kids will open their eyes to just how expensive it can be. If, on the other hand, your shopping is getting in the way of the family's ability to pay its other bills or save, chances are you feel guilty already and the bully is just piling on.  Start tracking your spending independently to see where you can make cuts.
  • Limits my monthly spending.  This often manifests itself when one party is expected to pay all the bills for the household – or the children – and is left with no discretionary money of their own. A couple should have some consensus about how the money coming in is being spent – how much on transportation, housing, food, etc. The purpose of doing that is to have enough left over each month to save, and for each person to have some "play money" to spend, says Hatcher. If you can't figure out how to cover all of these bases on your own, a financial advisor can help you figure out a workable budget.
  • Makes me show receipts for all purchases. This is about "lack of trust" as well as power and control, says Allen. It also sets up a parent/child dynamic between the couple that is unhealthy between two adults. In most cases, she says, this behavior is a symptom of larger problems that need to be addressed. "Couples therapy is definitely needed to get to the root of the problem."
  • Keeps me from having credit cards. If mismanagement of credit has been a problem in the past, it needs to be addressed and dealt with. But it should not keep one spouse from having a say in the family's overall financial life. More worrisome: Other research has shown the more frequently a couple argues about money, the more likely they are to divorce. Trying to establish credit post-divorce without a credit history is a bear. The bottom line: Keeping financial secrets from a spouse isn't the best idea either. But no one can keep you from applying for a credit card on your own.

Bottom line: If you feel you're being bullied, you likely are – feelings of inadequacy, low self worth, poor self image or embarrassment are hallmarks, says Allen -- and you should seek help from an independent third party like a therapist or financial advisor. Go, says Allen, even if your partner refuses to go with you.

Editor's note: This is the first column in a new series for Fortune by Jean Chatzky. Check back weekly for more. 

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Jean Chatzky
Jean Chatzky

Jean Chatzky is the financial editor of NBC’s Today show. Sign up for her free weekly newsletter at JeanChatzky.com. Follow her at @JeanChatzky.

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