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Want a better relationship? Learn how to discuss money with your partner

Talking about money with loved ones is awkward. Here’s how to do it.
Key Takeaways
  • Personal finance is an important part of life, but many people are reluctant to discuss money issues with their romantic partner.
  • A little discussion and planning can go a long way — even when the results aren’t sudden fabulous riches
  • Here are some strategies you can use to break the money taboo and develop a better relationship.

One of the last taboos in a modern relationship is talking about money. While many people like to pretend that love conquers all, or that a positive attitude will overcome all obstacles, the fact is that money issues are a leading factor in divorces — especially among young couples. A 2013 study found that money issues were a significant reason for divorce in 40% of cases.

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But why? In a consumer society like ours, why do we not like to talk about money in a relationship? And, perhaps more importantly, how can we keep this tendency from negatively impacting our relationships?

A strange taboo with many aspects

A 2012 study conducted by Dr. Joan D. Atwood, a Professor of Counseling and Mental Health Professions at Hofstra University, found that there is a lot of culture and history behind our reluctance to discuss money in committed relationships. Many people grew up in families where money wasn’t a topic of conversation. Others come from a tradition where the breadwinner of the family, typically a man, made all the financial decisions, while the other parent, typically a woman, went without financial autonomy. 

Even in a more progressive world, where people sincerely want to share financial responsibility, we often don’t know how to discuss financial issues, especially when the topic is bad news.

As financial therapist Lindsay Bryan-Podvin told Big Think:

“When do we have to talk about money in a relationship? When [big things] are happening! Like, ‘Oh, shoot, I got fired,’ or ‘Oh my gosh! I got a great job opportunity,’ or ‘Oh, by the way, the car is totaled, what are we going to do?’ And so, when you’re only talking about money when things are tense, it creates this feedback loop, this self-fulfilling prophecy of, ‘If we’d talk about money we’d fight.’” 

As a result, many people end up avoiding the issue. Therapist Dr. George James expanded on this idea, explaining how many people are still coming to terms with the problems money has caused in the past.

“You might be nervous or anxious or overwhelmed,” he told Big Think. “Or you saw other family members or parents struggle with this. But here’s your chance for it not to take you and your relationship out. And that means, yes, being vulnerable and dealing with some stuff that’s really hard.”

Many people are coming out of a world where money issues are silent struggles. This can become a problem when you’re sharing a life with somebody and suddenly have to decide where that life is going.

Watch our full interview on money and relationships:

How can you set goals without talking about them?

Even when gender roles, family history, or aversion don’t factor into it, many people can have different ideas about what a partnership means, what good financial stewardship looks like, and how they want to use their money.

As Dr. Atwood notes, you might have fundamentally different ideas about money than your partner does. For example, you might prefer to hoard money and stick to a tight budget while your spouse would rather splurge at will. 

Getting two people with different understandings of money can be a problem- especially if they don’t talk about it. This doesn’t prevent people from trying to manage money in silence, however.

According to a 1990 study published in Family Relations, few couples even try to keep budgets or financial planning goals. However, those who did keep budgets and set specific goals tended to end up with higher net worths by the end of the year. Additionally, those who felt like they were making improvements in their financial situation reported higher levels of financial well-being — even if their net worth was lower than those reporting no improvements.

Even a little discussion and planning can go a long way — even when the results aren’t sudden fabulous riches. As money issues are often the root or manifestation of other problems, having a better sense of well being in that part of a relationship can pay dividends. 

Lindsay Bryan-Podvin also touched on this issue during her interview:

“Having shared understanding about what you want money to do or mean in your relationship helps to set a foundation for so many other aspects of your relationship.”

A shared understanding doesn’t happen overnight. Financial Psychologist Dr. Brad Klontz suggested people look to the past for insights about the present when he spoke to BigThink:

“It’s really important for us to understand not only our money history, but our partner’s money history. Because our behaviors around money, our hang-ups around money, our mistakes around money all make sense when you understand the history.”

How to deal with it all

The real trouble about knowing you have a problem is taking action to solve it. Financial Therapist Steven M. Hughes told Big Think that the first step is understanding how your partner relates to money and seeing the world from their point of view.

“Because money is a taboo topic for a lot of us, we often don’t uncover the experiences of our partner when it comes to finances,” he told Big Think. “How they grew up with money, what they did at a young age. And so, taking some of the tension out of these money conversations starts with understanding perspective. So that you’re not going into a financial conversation setting off a lot of emotional and psychological triggers they have about money.”

Other aspects of money and discussing it are just not designed for great discussions. These can be altered. Dr. Klontz suggests tossing out the idea of a budget — which most people associate with austerity — and replacing it with the idea of a “spending plan.” To do so, he advises couples ask themselves:

“What do you want to spend your money on to get through life together is exactly what a good relationship is supposed to be about? What matters to you? What are the most important things to you? Picture yourself in the future, what are you doing? What are your goals? What does retirement look like to you? Get very, very specific.”

This is a more positive approach that will allow you to determine what life goals you want to reach, how you can reach them, and what has to be covered before you can start on them. After all, coming to an understanding about how to get through life together is exactly what a good relationship is supposed to be about.


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