How to stop money ruining your relationship

By psychologist Angie Willcocks

Money is about much more than the coins, notes and plastic cards we have in our wallets and bank accounts. It represents many important needs and wants: independence, power, freedom, control, safety and security.

Money can bring joy, satisfaction and pride as well as fear, insecurity, shame and worry. We need money to live, and to take care of the people who are most important to us. Because of all this, the issue of money (who makes it, how it’s made and how it’s spent) is a highly emotional one for just about everyone.

It’s not surprising then, that finances are one of the main areas of conflict for a lot of couples, and a major source of disagreement and distress in many marriages and long-term relationships. Money makes the world go around, but it can also make marriages fall apart.

Why couples fight about money

Many couples first experience conflict about money when there is a major upheaval or change in their lives, like a job loss, illness, injury or the arrival of their first child.

These situations, which are already stressful, become even more challenging when you add in differences of opinion about finances.

It’s important to know that it’s normal for two people to have differences in how they manage money. Different habits, ideas and beliefs about finances are the norm rather than the exception in marriages. Most of us are blissfully unaware of our partner’s money habits when we fall in love. Occasionally people are lucky enough to hit if off with someone who is similar to them in this area and any conflict is minimal and easily resolved. It’s pot luck though, and you could just as easily find yourself in love with someone whose attitudes and behaviours about money are foreign to you. The good news is that this is not a sign of anything being terribly wrong in your marriage. There is plenty that can be done to understand your differences, and manage the conflict these differences create.

There's no right or wrong

First you need to realise that, like it or not, we are all influenced by our childhood experiences of money. How your parents were with money (who made the money, who made the decisions, whether there was plenty, just enough or not enough) all greatly influence how you come to view money as an adult.

The skills that were learnt (or not learnt, as is often the case) come from parents or other important adults in our lives. Attitudes and behaviours around money that seem like common sense to one person might seem odd or downright wrong to another person. Take, for example, the use of credit. Some people will think it’s entirely normal to use a credit card to pay for a much-needed holiday, while another person will think it’s crazy and irresponsible. And another example: one person might think nothing of buying their lunch every day, while this sort of spending might seem wasteful and selfish to their partner. In both of these instances, each person would have a good argument and each would think they were in the right.

There’s often no clear-cut right or wrong, and couples can feel like their differences about money are impossible to resolve. That’s why money issues can lead to a lot of blame, resentment and disconnection.

Know where you're coming from

Like most areas of any relationship, communication is the key. Here are some tips:

  • Start with yourself. Spend time thinking about your childhood and how money was handled in your family. Who made the money? Was there enough? Who made decisions about how money was spent, and how were the priorities decided? What skills were you taught about money? Most people will start to have some sort of emotional response as soon as they start thinking about these questions. That’s okay! The point is to start to understand how you formed some of your ideas and habits around money. Most people don’t need a psychologist to figure out that how they handle money is affected by their experiences as a child and teenager!
  • Have a think about your own personal history with money. Ask yourself: When did you first earn money? What did you spend it on? Why? Have you been a saver or a spender, and what has led to that decision?
  • Next, have a look at yourself now: do you have any funny money habits? Record your own spending for a month and note what you spend most of your money on? This exercise should be done with interest and curiosity, not to beat yourself up.
  • Be honest with yourself: do you need or want to make any changes?
  • Realise that managing money well is a set of skills that can be learnt. It’s not your fault (or your partner’s) if you weren’t taught good financial skills as a kid, but you can make it your responsibility as an adult to learn them.

Once you’ve done these exercises for yourself, you can invite your partner to do them. I know this isn’t an easy thing to do, and if you’re not comfortable with this, just start with asking your partner if you can share what you have found out about yourself in doing this exercise. You could also email this article to them, and let them know that you’d like to work on reducing conflict about money.

I know that couples are often advised to set up regular times to have ‘finance meetings’ where they both sit down and talk about how things are going financially. This works well for some couples, and it’s worth trying if you haven’t already done so. If you have tried, but have found that these regular meetings either haven’t been possible or that they just haven’t worked don’t worry, you’re not alone!

It’s hard to ‘communicate well’ about topics that are highly emotional, and in my experience couples that can have successful finance meetings regularly tend to have quite similar money habits and attitudes in the first place!

Avoiding arguments when you don't see eye to eye

For many couples, the pain, shame and fear around money makes talking about it rationally (especially with someone they love) almost impossible. When this is the case, regular meetings can lead to more conflict and a sense of hopelessness about the situation. If this sounds like where you’re at, the following tips might help:

  • Think about what you already know about your partner’s history, and try to understand that his or her approach to money was probably set long before you came along. Given this, it’s unlikely that he or she is intending to hurt or distress you with their behaviour around money.* Can you try to think about your partner’s approach to money with a sense of curiosity and compassion, rather than blame and judgement?
  • Try to take ownership for your own views on money rather than just jumping to criticise your partner. For example, “I think buying lunch every day is a waste of money” is better than "You’re stupid and selfish to spend that money every day". It’s a small difference, but your partner is much more likely to see your point of view if you’re not attacking him or her.
  • Work on some common financial goals. These don’t have to be agreed on in any formal sit down 'meeting', but can be casually raised in conversation. For example "We talked about going to Vietnam next year so why don’t I set up a savings plan for us to do that? That way we’ll both have something to look forward to?"

Sometimes, the best way forward is for one person to take full responsibility of the family’s financial affairs. This works really well if both of you agree on this, and there is clear understanding about this role. It’s not about power, control, blame or judgement. It is about skills, knowledge and experience.

Here’s an example: I know of a couple with very different childhoods; her parents were stable and good at managing money, so she learnt these skills. His family had significant issues, and financially they scraped by and accumulated a lot of ‘bad’ debt. So this guy learnt unhealthy habits around money. He was willing to acknowledge that he didn’t have good habits, and that he felt overwhelmed and out of control with money. Both of them were sick of arguing about their finances, so they agreed that the woman would take control for the family. This agreement, and the understanding of why this was a good idea, meant that they could move on and work well as team.

* Sometimes, financial control or abuse is part of domestic violence, and these behaviours are intentionally damaging. This is a serious issue that is not covered in this column. For information and advice on financial abuse call the domestic violence helpline in your state.

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