It’s no secret that couples argue. Nearly half (41%) of American couples fight about loading the dishwasher alone. Money is a common source for arguments—31% of partnered adults say finances are a major issue in their relationships—which tend to be the nasty and divisive type. A family’s shared financial goals, such as retirement, moving to a bigger home, and paying kids’ college tuitions take a backseat to emotions and personal histories.
Why is it so hard to talk about money with someone you love? How can couples manage, discuss, and plan their financial futures with clear heads and serenity? Can financial compatibility be learned?
Yes, couples can do better. What it takes is asking the right questions and communicating with clarity and compassion.
There’s one simple reason why couples fight about money: They don’t understand each other.
Specifically, each partner lacks a good sense of the other’s history—how they grew up, how their families handled money—and how that affects the way they think and talk about money. Without that understanding, it can be hard to find common ground on which to make a joint financial decision.
Let’s take the contentious purchase of a new car. A friend of financial advisor and author Carl Richards couldn’t understand why his wife was fixated on getting a new car, when all her other tastes were modest, Richards recounted on an episode of the Her Money podcast released in April. After numerous heated exchanges about whether this purchase made sense, it dawned on the husband to finally ask: Why do you care so much? It turns out, the answer was rooted in his wife’s childhood. The wife’s father, Richards said, never had a reliable car growing up. The car broke down in front of the school and in the country, forcing the kids to walk. “I don’t need new. I need reliable,” Richards said, paraphrasing his friend’s wife. The husband apologized; one can infer that the couple got a reliable car and stopped fighting about it.
It makes sense that couples would struggle to express these hangups because we often don’t realize how our past experiences have affected us, and how our reactions impact our partners and their hangups. John Gottman, the Michael Jordan of relationship research coined the term “love maps.” In his book he argues that relationships thrive when both partners have richly detailed “love maps” of their partners—intimate familiarity of “each other’s deepest longings, beliefs, and fears.” Relationship coach Kyle Benson extends the concept of “love maps” into “money maps.” In the post “Arguments about money aren’t about money,” Benson recommends that couples understand their histories, “the melting pot of our childhood, teenage, and adult experiences that have sculpted and re-sculpted our likes and dislikes about money throughout our lives.”
Describing your own money map, and having a good sense of your partner’s, can help you navigate these thorny conversations together. The better you can describe your own, the more accurate those maps will be. Gottman encourages couples to ask each other questions that can help them tap into those past experiences with money, such as:
- If you could redo a five-year period of your life, which would you choose?
- What is one of my greatest fears or a disaster scenario?
- What stresses am I facing right now?
- What was my worst childhood experience?
- Do I have a secret ambition? What is it?
- What medical problems do I worry about?
- What is my fondest unrealized dream?
There might, of course, be other factors or experiences that can influence people’s relationship with money, such as traditional ideas around gender roles, hangups around past debts, or even mental health. But by starting the conversation, hopefully partners can create space for each other to get into those issues, too.
Understanding your own past, along with your partner’s, can make it easier to plan for the future. And while many couples may have joint financial goals, they probably haven’t explicitly defined those goals, nor how they’ll reach them. In a research paper titled “Mining for Goals,” authors from the investment research firm Morningstar argue that when it comes to money “people can be strangers to themselves.” The authors warn that individuals are susceptible to “thinking blind spots” that can “wreak havoc on the best-laid” plan.
Another problem with goals—even those a couple expressly agrees upon—is that they tend to be too broad, which can make them hard to accomplish. The authors of the Morningstar paper found that, when asked about their primary goal as an open-ended question, many people had listed their primary goal as “grow wealth.” But once presented with a list of additional options, what they really were striving for was achieving financial security or increasing social status. The researchers found that abandoning vague goals led to a “sharpened focus” and “better-refined priorities.” In addition to helping couples prioritize, compromise, and strategize accordingly, the approach helped “uncover meaningful emotional connections to their goals.”
Their suggestion for couples: use a Master List (and revisit this list every year or so, or more often if there’s a big life change) to memorialize their goals instead of rattling them off willy-nilly. Ideally, couples start these conversations early on in their relationship, around when they realize that their finances will be joined in the foreseeable future.
Here’s a sample of Morningstar’s Master List of investing goals:
- To buy a house
- To feel secure about my finances in retirement
- To give to charity or other causes I care about
- To leave an inheritance to my loved ones
- To stop working and do something I love
Ideally, each individual will have gotten in touch with their own history and feelings about money. Then, it’s time for partners to talk to each other. How exactly should they do that? In his New York Times series How to Talk About Money, Richards recommends four guidelines to make the discussions about money (both the regular check-ins and the inevitable surprise ones) less emotional and more useful.
Set aside a time
Very few conversations are productive if you’re drained from the week or after you’ve wrestled a toddler to bed. Having an intense discussion in those states pretty much guarantees a couple won’t have a harmonious conversation. Richards suggests a time “when you’ll have energy” and “avoiding late nights or the end of the long week.”
Leave the house
Discussing money can quickly get heated. You wouldn’t want to tarnish sacred places like the place you had your first date, the family table, or your bedroom with that kind of conversation. Instead, Richards suggests picking a sterile location, like a “private room at your local library” or a “cafe you don’t usually go to.”
Adopt a “no shame, no blame attitude”
Money mistakes are inevitable. They have happened in the past and will continue to happen in the future. It’s possible that couples are still living with the consequences of these past mistakes. Richards suggests that both partners “reframing mistakes as valuable lessons” so that over time they lose their “emotional charge.”
The time-out rule
Even with all those emotional guardrails in place, tempers will flare. And to defuse any tense situation, Richards uses a rule that serves me with when my toddler is acting bullheaded: the trusty time-out. If the conversation veers off-piste, either partner can call a time-out. Richards and his partner have established that during a time out, he has to “go out and exercise.” The separation (both physical and emotional) give both parties the “chance to settle down and to see things without the fog of emotion.”
And unsurprisingly, Richards reminds us of why we got here in the first place, urging us to “never forget that your relationship is more important than the money you guys are talking (or fighting) about.”