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Why Couples Argue Over Money

How we manage money in relationships reveals things about who we are and how we share power and trust with those closest to us

In several studies, couples report money and financial stress to be one of the biggest conflict areas in their relationship. The trap of financial hardship is a painful reality that can impact upon mental and physical health.

If you or your partner are fortunate enough to have a regular income, a shared roof over your head, and you’re free of some of these associated problems, it’s still startlingly surprising how discrepancies around money and finances can lead to major conflict and disconnection.

But why is this?

1. Money reveals a lot about who we are

How we manage money in relationships is perhaps one of the most telling things about who we are. It points to how we were raised and how we have learned to share power and trust with those closest to us. It also reveals a picture of our self-esteem, our overall sense of lack, or sense of abundance.

Ask yourself, do you see the money jar as half-empty, or half full? When your partner displays stinginess or generosity how does this affect your feelings about sharing?

Sometimes it might seem that your partner's money jar is always going to be larger or smaller than yours. Does this seem fair to you both or does it cause a problem?

2. It can highlight core differences between you and your partner

Regardless of how comparatively rich or poor we are, our values and ideas around financial fairness and equality are often shaped by, our culture, our early family history and especially our parent’s values.

Our underlying, sometimes unconscious beliefs, insecurities, and tensions about money don’t normally surface in relationships until they enter a more established place – for example, when you move in together, pool resources, and begin to set financial goals – but can quickly come to the surface.

3. ... and exacerbate roles within your couple relationship

Without discussing the meaning of money early on in the relationship, unconscious patterns and roles may emerge and lead to a parental or cultural patterns, and fears that affect the trajectory of your potential shared goals.

Most couples bring different resources or experiences of finance into their relationship, and many will be earning different amounts of money. Many couples, for example, have enjoyed the main childcare role being taken by the woman only to find later that there is a large discrepancy between pension pots of men and women.

Let’s consider a case study of a couple – Jan and Robert. Jan had money from a previous property and Robert had lost most of his equity in his house after an acrimonious divorce. Rather than pooling everything together, he and Jan decided to use the services of a solicitor to clarify this initial equity difference. Even though they were both secure in their earning capacity, Robert struggled with his feelings around money and would often challenge Jan for her lack of ease with spending. Arguments would ensue and Jan often felt as if she was being punished for Robert’s previous relationship difficulties and his feelings of unfairness around money. At the same time, Robert had managed to make regular contributions to his pension fund of which he was the sole beneficiary.

Not having a clear shared understanding about their financial security led Jan and Robert to doubt and question their financial position, leading to arguments and accusations. Arguments led to high stress levels and Robert, who had a stomach ulcer, would often experience poor health following a dispute. Worries about the long term consequences on his general well-being and life expectancy from this pattern is one of the reasons the couple attended therapy.

Don't lose sight of what counts

It's important to remember that physical and emotional health is in effect your greatest asset. Without it your enjoyment and financial security won’t really count for much.

How much of your joint budget, for example, allows you and those you care about to take time to keep fit and eat well? Is doing overtime to pay off the loan for a new car more important than you or your partner regularly attending a health spa together?

This is where an understanding of generosity in couple relationships can be helpful. Generosity isn’t giving in order to get something. Nor is it about being the only person who gives to others to the point of resentment.

Generosity is about seeing the greater benefit for everyone not just ourselves when we give. If Jan and Robert were to join a gym or health spa, it may seem like an extravagance but in reality it would be a win-win investment. If they were to gift a membership to each other, it would be a recognition of their shared benefit. This same principal can be applied to other aspects of their lives. What kind of a diet would they benefit from? What work/life balance really serves them as individuals and as a couple? Can their budgets reflect their best values and philosophies?

Exercise

Try this exercise to help you to think about what your own values and philosophies might be. Together or alone ask yourself the following questions about money and financial planning.

  • If your parents had a slogan about money, what would it be?
  • How has this slogan influenced your own financial beliefs, behaviours and attitudes?
  • How does your parents health affect their wealth?
  • If you wanted a new slogan that joined you and your partner’s financial beliefs in an exciting and positive way, what would it be?

Take it in turns to share your answers and be generous in how you give and receive your answers.

About the writer

Martin Gill

Martin is a qualified and registered UK psychotherapist, working in private practice with couples and families.

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