Money can be a major source of stress and conflict in relationships. Financial issues are the third largest contributor to divorce behind basic incompatibility and infidelity. In my work as a couples therapist, money clashes commonly show up in the form of recurring conflicts or arguments.
One way money clashes can show up is when partners have differing spending habits. Maybe one of you is a spender and the other a saver. If you're the “frugal” one, it can be easy to feel your partner has bad spending habits or want to control their spending habits.
Addressing differing spending habits directly before they have serious implications on the relationship is an important step to take — but it’s not the first. I recommend taking a look at your own spending habits to better understand the context of your partner’s.
When differing spending habits come together, conflict is often inevitable. If you feel your partner is overspending or, in your opinion, has bad spending habits, what feelings come up for you? What assumptions or stories emerge in these moments?
Examining our own spending behaviors offers a glimpse into our cultural and familial upbringing, long-held beliefs, core values and unresolved conflicts shaped over thousands of repeated interactions amidst the backdrop of our childhood influences. If you’re frugal or known to be a spendthrift, meticulous with money, or tethered to a particular spending habit, consider the significant people and events that might have influenced the development of these behaviors. For example, did you grow up seeing your caregiver struggling to keep one job after another resulting in food and housing insecurity? Imagine this level of stress as you enter adulthood — how might these early experiences have shaped your adult spending habits?
For many, money is a representation of deeper wants and needs. It is a proxy for self-worth, independence, status, and much more. Owning our narrative not only brings personal clarity, but it lays the groundwork from which to understand our partner’s spending habits.
Why does talking about money with a partner feel so difficult in the first place? Money evokes emotions, and some emotions commonly associated with money — fear, envy, guilt and shame — are neither easy to sit with nor talk about. As with most unpleasant encounters, we may unconsciously try to avoid, distract, numb or even hack our way around them. While emotions may be messy, they are hardwired into our biology. Inevitably they will find a way to resurface, especially in our intimate relationships.
If we are uncomfortable acknowledging our own feelings around money and our spending, it will be even more awkward and difficult being with these feelings in the presence of our partners.
When emotions resurface, I find the following two mindsets helpful:
While it may still feel counterintuitive for some of us, research shows that couples who talk about their finances also manage them better. What it takes is openness, positive intention, non-judgment and plenty of practice.
What do three decades of couples research from Dr. John Gottman et al. teach us about relationships? A relationship built on predominantly positive communication grounded in a culture of mutual fondness and appreciation nurtures connection, growth and longevity. The buildup of positivity is key to weathering the inevitable storms of life. It’s the reservoir that buffers and sustains a relationship when we feel depleted by the negative impact of tougher times.
In contrast, recurring destructive communication fraught with criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling — what Gottman calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” — corrodes relationships. If you’re noticing these patterns cropping up, here are some tips for fostering more emotionally intelligent communication:
Spending habits communicate volumes about the meaning that money has taken on for all of us. Be open to discovering the unique stories behind the behaviors, and consider this an opportunity to learn about each other. With a clearer understanding of the needs, feelings and consequences involved, lean into conversations with a softer approach to arrive at mutually supportive solutions. Genuine gratitude with a curious mindset brings us closer to our partner and ourselves.
Helen Brody, LMFT, is the San Francisco clinic director at Octave and a couples therapist with over a decade of clinical experience. Octave is a modern mental health practice with in-person and virtual clinics in California and New York, partnering with clients to develop personalized plans that can include individual therapy, couples therapy, and groups – all covered by insurance. Learn more here.
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