Can money problems ruin your relationship? Will financial strain eventually wear down even the most loving pair? Can differences in money handling ever be resolved?
Money is a leading source of conflict in couples, and some sources cite it as the leading source of marital discord. Why is that?
You may be surprised at the number of ways that attitudes and behaviors toward financial matters impact the health of our closest relationships. Moreover, when the money problems we’re talking about are over making ends meet — whether a matter of unexpected medical expenses, debt racked up during a period of unemployment, or the challenging costs of raising kids after divorce — the strain may wind up breaking you up, or at the very least, exacerbating existing differences.
We All View Money Differently
Some of us are spenders. Some of us are savers. Some of us vacillate between the two, depending on changing circumstances. Yet even in our perceived “balanced choices,” the ways we save and spend may differ significantly from those of a spouse or partner.
We might view spending and saving tendencies like any other aspect of shared life that we need to understand and negotiate, since attitudes toward money grow out of well established habits as well as values. But these may be values we aren’t fully aware of.
Yet unlike other value conflicts — how to discipline the kids or the importance of family dinners — there are elements of shame and blame around financial strain that seem, to my mind, particularly painful. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Americans have a strange relationship with money, wherein we subtly (and not so subtly) place blame on those without it and assume irresponsibility if money is scarce, all the while both revering and envying those who have it.
If you’re struggling or poor, it must be your fault. “It could never happen to me because I wouldn’t make the same mistakes,” we tell ourselves. If you have money, or you’re constantly working to make more money, we tend to believe “Good job, you’re planning for the future, you’re working hard, you’re doing everything right…”
Additionally, in some parts of the U.S. more than others, we then feel compelled to display our good fortune: We buy (or lease) the shiniest new car; we put our money into expansive square footage (5,000 or 8,000 or 10,000 square foot homes); we wear designer this and designer that, careful to stay both exclusive and current.
Some who aren’t well positioned to actually pull this off — a mini-version of emulating the 1% — find themselves in precarious financial straits in our 21st century version of keeping up with the Wealthy Joneses.
Arguing Over Money?
This article at the Wall Street Journal offers fascinating insight into the reasons for our disparate spending and saving behaviors, their unpredictability, and the potential for some measure of resolution.
Explaining the variations in approaches to the Almighty Dollar (or Pound? Or Euro?) —
… when couples argue about how to spend money, they’re not just debating the issue at hand… They’re giving voice to subconscious anxieties that even they may not be aware of—and bumping up against the unarticulated fears of their partners.
Maybe it was a childhood of poverty—or just the constant fear of poverty—that leaves a spouse hating to spend money. Maybe a first spouse’s secret bank account now is causing distrust in a second marriage…
Certainly, friction between spouses or partners over spending versus saving can cause serious damage. Any sort of argument that goes unresolved month after month or year after year will eventually alter our behaviors, as well as our communication.
We may disagree on eating out once a week or once a quarter, putting a bonus check into savings or spending it on a family vacation, or sending a gifted child to a pricey private school. Whatever the source of conflict, if we don’t stop to really listen to our partner’s underlying fears and concerns, to the values being expressed through financial priorities, then we won’t be able to reach an acceptable compromise.
Resentments grow, silence forms walls, and sneaking a spend here (or a secret account there) may seem like the only shot at dealing with an apparent loggerhead.
What approach could yield a compromise?
That depends on who you ask, not to mention the consequences of the decision on hand. In other words, a child’s future is not the same as taking a vacation or not; spending on a 5,000 square foot home versus a 4,000 square foot home is not the same as living paycheck to paycheck while struggling with the choice of whether to cover the rent or pay for medications.
The Psychology of Money; Solving Money Differences
The Wall Street Journal article on financial decision-making drives home this point. Regardless of the reasons for stress over money, getting to core beliefs is a help.
How do couples keep from stumbling over all that emotional baggage every time they need to talk about their bills or their budget? One place to start is to simply acknowledge that everyone reacts emotionally to money, and then take the time to find out what early memories may be driving each spouse’s behavior.
Yes, the old standby — listening. Really listening. And neither blaming nor shaming, but seeking to come to a meeting of the minds. Only then can you constructively and honestly face your long ingrained differences. And yet…
I find myself considering couples who maintain separate bank accounts (on the sly), those who do so knowingly, those with a joint account only, and those who openly maintain both separate and common accounts. In my own experience, I’ve seen friends and family all over the map on this one, philosophically speaking, wherein some believe that combining all monies is a fundamental element of a shared life, and others prefer the flexibility of separate accounts especially given the realities of divorce, remarriage, and blended families.
Separate accounts provide reassurance to many, as they believe this enables them more freedom to exercise their own will (if a spouse or partner disagrees with their spending). Moreover, a separate account may be viewed as a necessary “nest egg” should an escape plan ever be required.
I’ve known men who are fine with separate accounts (it buys them freedoms as well), men who believe all monies should be combined (without exception), men who believe that purchases above a certain amount should require their consent, and so on. I was also shocked to find during my divorce that the man I married had an account I never knew about, which is apparently very common.
Financial Problems = Relationship Stress
Among the sources citing money as a relationship challenge is this. CNBC tells us money is the leading cause of relationship problems. Even if we aren’t talking about marriage, but serious dating or cohabitation, this doesn’t surprise me whatsoever. On a purely anecdotal note, in one of my longest and most successful serious relationships, the greatest source of friction between us had its origins in money matters.
While it’s worth noting that the study referenced in the CNBC article was conducted by a bank, the results are nonetheless interesting, reporting that:
… Among respondents with relationship stress aged 44 to 54, 44 percent said money was the primary cause.
The article cites a broader-based source, namely the American Psychological Association.
Money and stress do seem to go hand in hand for many Americans, whether they’re in relationships or not. A study released earlier this week by the American Psychological Association found almost three-quarters of Americans are experiencing financial stress at least some of the time, and nearly a quarter of us are feeling extreme financial stress.
Did you hear that?
Three quarters of Americans experience financial stress at least some of the time.
Any source of stress, especially prolonged, impacts our health, reduces our capacity for empathy, can trigger or reinforce depression and anxiety, can kill off libido — and it doesn’t require a PhD after your name to realize that puts a strain on every relationship.
When Conflict Is Left Untended
Financial differences like any other sort of conflict can go underground, at least for a time. Just like other differences of opinion, resentment may bubble up and surface at odd moments. And let’s remember how often troubles unrelated to the bedroom nonetheless show up between the sheets! And that includes divergent expectations of any significant sort, which certainly includes matters of money.
To some degree, this is human nature. It’s also a function of our skill in paying attention to our partner, and listening even when we would rather not hear what he or she has to say. It also may entail sacrificing something we want. Most of us do this routinely as parents, though I suspect we find it harder in our adult couple relationships.
This counseling source looks at relationship challenges from a therapeutic standpoint, highlighting what typically results from financial strain, whatever its underlying causes. The article points out that financial stress can lead to:
Increased conflict & irritability, distancing/withdrawal… blame and underlying resentment… depression… illness… decreased affection/sex life…
This same article offers tangible tips to work through the issues, and they strike me as practical, achievable, and helpful. First and foremost, a couple must approach the problem as a team. Simply put, they support one another: They’re “in it” together.
Having lived through this kind of wrenching, insomnia-inducing situation, I know that being on the same page is key. Whatever the reason for the financial stress, if one partner feels that he or she is in it alone, kiss the trust and intimacy goodbye. Instead, say hello to an open door to silence, avoidance, secrets, omissions, and outright lies. Bad news, whatever your relationship.
While more useful tips are provided, the other recommendation that stands out echoes the Wall Street Journal article’s point. It is vital to communicate openly — not only as to how to improve the situation, but each expressing their feelings along the way so anger and resentment don’t place a wedge between them.
Money Is an Emotional Issue
Along with the practical issues of money and its necessity, let’s not forget the symbolism money wields in Western society. Money is power, but it may be something more, certainly to men and possibly to women as well: I look at money as potency.
For me, potency is about potential capacity, aligned to practical issues but also to physical strength and yes, sexuality. While the difference between potency and power may be subtle, and many say that money equals power, for me, financial security equates to the potential to fix things that go wrong, to support others who depend on me, and to survive — should relationships crumble. Potency. Potential. Hope for the future. We live in a society wherein our currency is indeed currency.
And don’t we have an emotional relationship to money? Don’t our beliefs about money arise out of childhood and later experience? We may not fully understand it, much less articulate it and negotiate with a partner. For example, I grew up in a household in which money was scarce. I vowed that I would always earn my own money and never find myself in the humiliating position in which my mother lived for a number of years — dodging bill collectors on the phone, scrimping to get by on a small allowance from my father, always uneasy about his variable income as he was paid on commission rather than a salary.
I absorbed the lessons of money as a measure of my worth as well as a ticket to independence. I began babysitting very young, I saved every dime, and was schooled in my mother’s words: “If you earn it, you can have it.” Three years of working and saving bought me my first trip to France!
My Money “Belief System.” What’s Yours?
I am coming to understand that we all operate according to a money “belief system.” I am increasingly able to articulate mine. Here are some of the key elements.
- Money is not something I spend easily, though no one would call me cheap.
- I believe in paying for quality, and I’m happy with few high quality items over many that are “less good.”
- I have learned to negotiate everything, though I believe in respecting the producer and distributor of goods and services by paying fairly.
- I believe in balancing spending with savings, though circumstances can greatly alter the practice of doing so.
- I do not like financial risk (the result of having been burned); I understand how this has changed over the years (I took greater risk when I was younger, as is common).
- I derive an enormous sense of identity from earning money. Note I say earning money, not “having” money.
- I enjoy a blend of “object” purchases and “experience” purchases, though objects are of less importance as I get older (thus my desire to streamline and pare down possessions at least to some degree).
- My best example of object purchases would be books and art (I still indulge in the former; I rarely indulge in the latter).
- My experience purchase examples are primarily education and travel.
And yet, from my childhood and also from many lean years post-divorce, I live in fear of poverty, an emotion that intensifies as I get older, and I believe is a common fear among many midlife American women — the Bag Lady fear — and with good reason. I also consider this to be a source of societal disgrace.
Where Do You Fall on the Money Tree?
Have you worked hard all your life for every dollar or pound or Euro you’ve got? Are you fearful of finding yourself unable to provide for your family? Have you gone through an extended period of unemployment after layoff, or hit a brick wall trying to get back into the workforce? Have you been dealt a massive amount of debt post-divorce or after a parenting crisis or possibly a medical incident?
Has the strain of financial stress and duress put a wedge in your relationship, or possibly, prevented you from getting out and being able to create a new one?
Might you be a saver because you grew up watching your parents struggle? Might you be a spender for precisely the same reason, now that you have a few bucks?
Some of us may think that money grows on trees; most of us, as adults, certainly know better. Wherever we fall on the highly volatile spectrum of money beliefs, it’s easy to see that divergent views and values can make money a particular source of tension in couples. Fighting over money — whether you have it or not — touches on deeply rooted psychological issues of identity, self-worth, success, failure, survival fears and more.
If we’re to deal with these issues as a team — we must talk about them, and we must listen. Then, as the experts tell us, we need to seek mutually acceptable compromise, even as it may require uncomfortable change in lifestyle or habits.
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