How to Talk About Money Without Destroying Your Relationship
DEAR DR. JENN,
My S.O. And I come from very different socioeconomic backgrounds. I saw you talking about this issue on TV and it got me thinking about my situation. We are talking about getting engaged. What do I need to know going into a marriage? We have never really talked about our financial goals or values around money. When should we have that talk? What issues should we be aware of? —Richer or Poorer
There are unique tensions that tend to come up with couples getting ready to marry across socioeconomic backgrounds. Marrying someone from a different socioeconomic background is very similar to marrying someone from a different religious or cultural background. You are likely to have differing views on all sorts of things — child rearing, money management, career advancement, and how you spend your leisure time. Talking about these differences and expectations is key.
It is important to have these conversations as soon as you are in a committed relationship and you are both starting to talk about a future together. The money issue is in the room with both of you. You might as well talk about it! In order to have a successful relationship you need to be able to talk about everything, even the difficult and touchy topics. For most couples, money is a loaded topic, so to speak. Having differences of opinion on it are normal, even if your parents or families of origin handled their finances much in the same ways. When you've got differences as a starting point, you need to be sensitive to that, and tread carefully.
Keep in mind that money is power. The person who has the most money in the relationship, typically has the most power in decision making. Even in seemingly egalitarian relationships, at the end of the day the person who has or earns the most money very often ends up having the final say on any number of decisions. This can create conflict and is important to discuss in advance, or try to catch when it's happening and smooth things out together.
In my clinical experience, I've noticed that many same-sex couples handle this issue a little better. Gender can be a particularly significant factor here. The strife and drama that the gendered pay gap creates isn't just a societal problem — but an interpersonal one, too. With the couples I have seen in my practice, when the woman has more money than the man it tends to be more challenging. Some men feel emasculated in this situation and others become entitled. When the man has more money than the woman, there is always a risk of her feeling controlled. I see this too often. It is important to find a healthy balance in order to make the relationship equitable and have both people feel significant and respected. Sometimes this means leaving your financial baggage from your family or background behind, and trying to start fresh, together.
Statistically speaking, money conflicts are one of biggest harbingers of doom in a relationship. According to a Utah State University study, couples who reported disagreeing about finances once a week were over 30 percent more likely to get a divorce than those who reported disagreeing about money matters a few times a month. But there is a lot couples can do to avoid money conflicts. Here are some tips to get you started:
1. Work together to come up with system of handling finances and decision making that both partners can agree on.
2. Have neutral people who can help when a conflict around money arises. Ideally, one person would help with the emotional conflict involved, like a therapist or a religious counselor. A couple in this situation would also, ideally, have a financial expert like a business manager, accountant, or financial advisor to help with larger financial decisions.
3. Talk about expectations in advance. What do they expect their lifestyle to look like? Who will pay for what? What kind of gifts do they expect from one another and how often? How will bills be handled and bank accounts shared or not shared? Don't leave these questions until a fight has started about one of the answers — sort them out, asap.
4. Learn how to negotiate in respectful way regardless of who has money. This takes practice. It can be particularly difficult because we all get triggered around money. Repeatedly make clear that your value to one another is not financial — no matter who started out with more, grew up more comfortably, or made fewer credit-card mistakes in their past. If you can't show love beyond material things? Well, that will likely cost you.