In a recent marriage counseling session, a couple Andy and Dina came in visibly stressed. When I asked them what happened Andy said that they were fighting over money.
“We are spending too much money recently and need to cut back but she doesn’t want to,” he said. “Well, we’ve been working really hard lately and deserve to have fun. All I wanted is to go on a weekend getaway,” Dina responded.
Money is one of the most common topics couples fight about. It’s one of those perpetual issues—issues that surface over and over again despite having discussed them and seemingly resolved them before. In fact, talking about money is hard for almost any person.
The topic usually brings up anxiety, hopes, dreams, regrets and much more. No surprise then that when two people with two different perspectives are involved it becomes even more complicated. However, there’s one important insight that can change the way you talk about money forever:
The problem is not the money itself, but that which money symbolizes.
Think for a moment what would happen if you had double the money that you currently have. What will you do with it? Perhaps you start thinking about that holiday you always dreamed of or that car you always fancied. Maybe, instead, you immediately plan how much you will put aside for retirement. Or maybe you would like to donate some of that money or lend it to a friend in need. Why did you choose these things and not others? It’s because they reflect certain values that you hold. Now consider that your partner will have their own associations and feelings about the finances and, most likely, these will differ from yours…a recipe for an argument?
It doesn’t need to be. When we realize that money acts as a symbol for certain values and that we all have very different views and feelings about money, it makes it easier to understand our own and our partner’s perspectives on the subject.
What Does Money Represent To You?
Now go back to thinking about money and see what pops up for you regarding how to spend it and what it would mean to you to have money. Using the categories below, try and identify which of these apply to you and which apply to your partner.
Status: Do you associate being important with having lots of money? Do you find yourself looking up to people who live in a certain area, drive certain cars and earn a certain amount of money? If you find that you tend to admire and look up to people with a certain social status and believe it is important to maintain a lifestyle that is similar to your peers then money represents status to you.
Security: Do you feel safer and less anxious at the thought of having more money? Do you believe you should always have savings available to fall back on in times of need? If you find that having money means not having to worry and prefer to save in guaranteed investments as opposed to risky ones then money probably represents security to you.
Control: Do you feel that you have more independence when you have money? Do you believe you get to make the decisions if you hold the money? If you find that it is important to you to have your own bank account with your own savings, so that you don’t feel controlled by your partner and want to be free to make your own decisions then money may symbolize having control to you.
Enjoyment: Do you think about lavish holidays when you think about having money? Do you feel that money is there for enjoyment and relaxation? If you believe that your hard earned money is better spent on vacations, fun outings and some retail therapy rather? Then saving it then money is probably associated with enjoyment for you.
Once you have been able to identify what money really means to you and the associations you hold then you can have more meaningful conversations about it. Instead of talking about money, talk about the values it holds for you, and why those are such a strong force in your life. When you are able to understand your partner’s value around money you will also be able to understand their concerns, fears and feelings about money and why they make the choices that they make.
Now think about a recent discussion or argument you had about money and try to identify the underlying issues there—in our example Andy was concerned about security while Dina views money as enjoyment. In any argument about money you will find that you are promoting the value that is important to you, so understanding what your partner values and respecting his/her needs around the issue allows you to move beyond just talking about money and discussing the underlying issues such as a need to feel accepted (status), or feel safe (security) or needing more independence (control). And if you have differing perspectives on what money means to you then be prepared to re-visit this discussion in the future as you work your way around the various issues it raises.