Couples and Money: Three Questions to Ask

Do you and your partner have frequent tension or arguments about money?

Conflict around money is one of the most common topics that comes up in couples therapy, for folks of all income levels. Sometimes one partner is a spender while the other is a saver. There can be disagreement about how to manage personal and joint accounts, or paying bills when one partner makes more money than the other. For some, emotions run high when there are questions about how to manage inheritance or profits from a family business. Finances are a loaded subject, and there often aren’t easy answers for what a couple *should* do in any of the above scenarios.

Spoiler alert: there is no one-size-fits-all solution for couples to successfully manage their money. While some always keep their bank accounts separate and split expenses 50/50, others have one joint account from which all expenses are paid. Others come up with creative alternatives to fit their unique situation.¬†Everyone¬†has disagreements about finances from time to time, especially if unexpected hardship arises. But if you’re finding yourself being consistently conflict avoidant or argumentative with your partner about money, it might be time to go back to the drawing board and hash out a new system of household financial management.

So how do you stop fighting and start dreaming up a money solution that works the best for your relationship? Here are three questions to ask:

1) Where did we learn about managing money?

Our expectations around finances are strongly influenced by what was modeled for us in our own families, for better or worse. Living with financial hardship in our childhood can sometimes contribute to anxiety around spending, for example; or perhaps your partner came from a wealthy family that did not teach money management skills to the kids. Witnessing a tumultuous divorce or addiction can bring particularly strong feelings to the surface around how money is accessed. Being aware of how our partner’s background has shaped their worldview can help us to approach the subject with empathy and understanding.

Instead of saying, “How could you think like that? It makes no sense to me,” find out why your partner thinks and feels the way that they do. Ask about culture and values around money, and be genuinely curious. Then share about yours. If you aren’t sure where your own money values come from, engage in some self-reflection on your own or with a therapist. Self-awareness and communication is key.

Next, it’s time to identify when your worldviews clash and cause tension in the relationship, which brings us to number 2:

2) Do we trust one another?

I have seen couples that experience communication breakdown in the grocery checkout line. Whose turn is it to pay? Well, clearly most of this is your stuff so you should foot the bill. There is tension and uncertainty each time they approach a cash register together. While these couples think that they are just establishing fairness in the relationship, they are usually playing out a deeper dynamic around commitment and trust. They may be ambivalent about getting engaged or married, or perhaps there is a fear of the vulnerability that comes with blurring the lines around everyday spending. When two adults begin to establish a household together, some growing pains are expected as they take on more shared responsibility. However, if the couple is not able to develop a conflict-free system of money management and the tension persists well into marriage, it might be time to explore what is going on emotionally under the surface.

For many of these couples, having an honest conversation about the relationship can do wonders. Revealing the emotional processes underneath the money arguments can be illuminating and freeing, which leads us to number 3:

3) Is it really about the money?

Although money is important, it can sometimes be a convenient way to avoid discussing the real problem (as described in number 2), and there are also other emotional components to money that couples often need to address. This is especially true in the case of inheritance money and business profits, as well as debt and financial “baggage” that partners bring to the relationship. I encourage my clients to be open with each other about financial history, goals, and the emotional meaning of the financial decision in question.

For example, one spouse might say, “you might not understand this, but my dad left this money for me, and so I think I should get to decide what to do with it,” or perhaps, “this money came from my family’s business, and I don’t know the best way to honor that.” When opinions are voiced respectfully, it leaves room for partners to validate, discuss and come to mutually agreed upon solutions. Emotions run particularly high when the money is attached to grief, or if hurts from the couple’s own relationship history are getting entangled in the issue (i.e. if a partner has cheated or made a bad business decision in the past). In this way, power dynamics and unconscious role expectations can come into play, and it’s important to voice what’s going on under the surface.

Just like with sex, the key to conflict-free money management is consent, transparency, and an awareness of the wants and needs that you are bringing to the table. Both voices need to be heard and the focus should be on cultivating your own culture around money that works for both of you. What’s important isn’t necessarily that you have a concrete thirty-year plan, but that there is constructive process between you that allows for comfort in brainstorming, dreaming and problem-solving together.

If you and your partner keep hitting snags when it comes to money matters, our team at ECS is here to help. All of our clinicians are trained to support couples through delicate conversations and challenging moments in their relationship. You may also consider enlisting the support of a wealth manager to help your family navigate financial planning.

~ Nicole Brown, LMFT

1 Comment

  1. This is insightful and well written! Thank you Nicole. I grew up with parents fighting and fretting over finances. Still am undoing some baggage. Great reminders.

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