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Carolyn Hax: Friends, family and gifts may not be the real problem

DEAR CAROLYN: My husband and I have recently started saving for a home, which means clamping down on our budget. I suggested we set a per-person amount to spend on birthday gifts for immediate family. 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 only has 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 one big combined family. And his arrangement says his brother deserves nicer gifts than my siblings.

I actually constantly feel my family members, as well as my friends, aren’t as important as his. He always has something negative to say about them, and while one of his friends can drop by and spend the night on our couch without any mention to me, it can turn into a huge heated debate if I even ask to have one of my friends over. Am I out of line? Or is he being unfair?

Confused Wife

DEAR WIFE: 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 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 regarding your “side” as equally important. If that’s accurate, then that’s a crack in the foundation of 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 he isn’t … and you, say, failed to mention that your family absorbs 90 percent of your energy – then that too is a problem at the foundation of 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 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.

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

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com or follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax.

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