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Carolyn Hax: Quibbling shows cracks in marriage

Dear Carolyn: My husband and I have recently started saving for a home, which means clamping down on our budget. I suggested that we set a per-person amount to spend on birthday gifts for immediate family. Anything above that amount would need to come out of our personal “fun money” stash. He, however, thinks it’s fair to set a per-family amount, to be distributed evenly over the members of that family.

I have four siblings, and he has only one. With his arrangement, each of my siblings would get a $20 gift, while his brother would get an $80 gift. My husband heatedly argued that it’s not fair that I “get to spend so much more of our money” on my family. But in my mind, we both share a combined family. And his arrangement says his brother deserves nicer gifts than my siblings.

On a side note, I constantly am made to feel that my family members, as well as my friends, aren’t ever as good or as important as his. He always has something negative to say about them. It’s really starting to hurt my feelings and my self-esteem. Am I out of line?

– Confused Wife

A: Give them all cards and spend $160 on good marriage counseling.

Not because this is such a big issue, but because it’s such a small one. You’re high-temp arguing over 80 bucks and one night on your couch?

There’s room for different, reasonable opinions on gift expenses and friends. Accordingly, partners who trust each other are flexible about this and other small stuff.

Partners who don’t trust each other, on the other hand, will fight over small stuff as if their entire selves are at stake – because, in a way, they are.

As you describe it, your husband is treating himself, his family and his friends as his top priorities, instead of freely regarding your “side” as equally important. If that’s accurate, then that’s a crack in your marriage. Happy spouses take care of each other.

If that’s not accurate – if he is, in fact, attentive to your needs, but you believe that he isn’t … and you, say, failed to mention that your family absorbs 90 percent of your energy – then that, too, is a problem with your marriage.

Both of you need to give equal weight to your needs, the other’s needs and the needs of the marriage – and both of you need to trust that the other is doing this, too. Without both of these elements, you will approach issues in your marriage, large and small, with an eye to protecting what’s yours – meaning, with an eye to winning the argument and getting what you want instead of finding an outcome that serves you both, even if it wasn’t exactly what either of you had in mind.

Maybe you can achieve that without couples therapy: Can you both have the yours-mine-ours, family-friends conversation without getting defensive? If yes, then start talking. If no, then start asking trusted people for names.