Money is a common source of tension in relationships. How much should we save? How much should we spend? What should we spend it on? Disagreements about finances can drive couples to relationship destruction.
Why Do Couples Fight About Money?
Each member of a couple comes to a relationship with different:
- financial management skills
- expectations about how much money should be spent and saved
- priorities for how to spend money
- and perhaps most importantly, each person attaches different meanings to specific financial decisions and purchases.
When couples argue about what to buy and when, they often miss out on talking to each other about what purchases mean to each person at a deeper level. Both members of a couple might assume they’re on the same page but purchases may hold meanings far beyond what seems obvious.
For example, Gerry and Hannah are talking about buying a new car.
Gerry thinks it is a waste of money; they already have a car that works fine for their needs. In Gerry’s family, spending money on unnecessary items was a sign of foolishness and recklessness. Gerry attaches a negative meaning to buying a new car, believing it to be wasteful and silly. He wants to save as much money as possible for the future. For Gerry, saving money is a way of caring for his family and creating security for them. He wants to be a responsible provider above all else. A large part of Gerry’s self-worth comes from making financial decisions for the family that he sees as sensible and safe.
Hannah desperately wants a new car. She has never owned a new car and came from a background of very limited means. She was often embarrassed growing up at having to ride around in her family’s old car, which frequently broke down and would leave her dependent on other people for rides. Hannah has been working her way up the career ladder for many years, and always set a goal of buying a new car when she was able to do so. She has finally reached a point where she has the financial means to purchase a new car. For Hannah, buying a new car confirms her years of hard work and represents “having made it”. Having her own car gives Hannah a sense of independence, personal strength, and financial freedom.
Gerry and Hannah clearly attached very different meanings to buying a car. If Hannah says, “I really want a new car” and Gerry says, “It’s a waste of money!” without exploring those meanings, they’re likely to get into an argument that will go around in circles.
If they began by asking each other about what the car meant to each of them, Hannah might begin to understand Gerry’s strong need to be a responsible provider and that he feels threatened by the purchase of an “unneccessary extravagence”. Gerry might see that Hannah is not simply spending money on a whim or being wreckless, but that a new car is important to her sense of self-worth and as a celebration or her hard work and success.
How Do I Discover My Partner’s “Meanings”?
Ask questions. If you find yourself having an argument about money that feels like it’s going nowhere, take the time to find out your partner’s perspective on a deeper level than “I want it” or “I don’t want it”. Some questions you could try asking:
- What does it mean to you to save money? How important is it to you to save?
- What does (this purchase) mean to you?
- How would it feel to buy (this item)?
- How would you feel if we didn’t buy (this item)?
- Is there another purchase that’s more important to you?
- What would it say about our lives if we owned (or didn’t own) (this item)?
- How do you envision our ideal financial future? What sort of things would we be spending money on?
- What’s your biggest financial priority right now?
Asking your partner questions and being open to hearing their answers can be a very effective way to shift an argument to a constructive discussion. Questions can help you get “unstuck” from a stale fight.
Understanding each other’s perspective is a key step in negotiating an outcome that you can both agree to, and you may strengthen your relationship in the process. You may find that you and your partner feel much closer and more connected after discussing what different financial decisions mean to you.
Practical solutions may also be helpful, especially after developing a better understanding of each person’s priorities. Creating a budget plan, consulting a financial advisor, and discussing shared financial priorities for the future may all help reduce tension about money in your relationship.
If you and your partner are arguing about financial decisions, counselling is a valuable resource. Counselling can help you identify the meanings you attach to financial decisions and help you and your partner improve your communication.
The team at Real People Counselling offers confidential, supportive, non-judgemental counselling and psychotherapy to individuals and couples in the Melbourne CBD.