Money symbolizes so many things to different people. As a thought exercise, John Gottman wrote out all the possible meanings money has for people and easily came up with over 100 meanings before he stopped. As a couples therapist who has seen hundreds of couples over the past 30 years, I can attest to the fact that people have such different perspectives, values, and needs regarding money and that disagreements about money often get stuck at the practical level and deeper levels of meaning, history, or world views are not explored or understood fully.
When talking about finances with your partner, remember that money is a symbol, a tool, and a metaphor. Don’t take this money issue so literally that you’re not able to open your heart and mind and be receptive to a deeper conversation with your partner on this topic. The complex conversation you can have is about how each of you were shaped and influenced by your life experiences with wealth, responsibility, or worry regarding financial security. This will become an important foundation from which you can understand each other.
If you currently feel comfortable with how much money you have in your partnership or your ability to earn and save enough money for your current and future needs, this type of conversation may feel like a breeze. There is now an opportunity to take the money conversation to a deeper and more spiritual or existential place for both of you.
If money is a struggle in your lives and the thought of talking about the meaning of money feels really difficult because the financial deficit becomes front and center in your discussions, then consider this conversation as an opportunity to dream together, be positive and creative, and stay away from complaining or thinking of the negative aspects of your financial situation. Consider focusing on one small aspect of the money conversation and enjoying getting to know each other’s values, dreams, and history.
This conversation can also be a chance for you to explore your personal histories and meanings related to money. Wealth is a concept that is so relative and diverse that one person can look at a $20 bill and feel rich, and another can feel poor. Our beliefs, language, and experiences around money both in our own lives and witnessing the lives of our parents and grandparents create a sort of “money script” that lives inside of us sometimes largely unknown or unspoken.
Very often couples argue about money without realizing that it’s really about who has power and influence in the relationship.
Together, you get to open up that vault and look inside at the money scripts both of you bring to the table in this relationship. More importantly, you may consider how those hidden beliefs, morals, and values have been turned into guiding principles that direct the way you earn, use, save, or crave wealth.
Make sure to avoid labeling or judging your partner’s family or childhood, especially in light of the present concerns you have about their money script. Stay positive and receptive and find ways to validate or show your empathic understanding of how their past has shaped their present views.
Here are a few things to keep in mind.
Money can polarize partners
In many of the couples I have worked with, one partner may see money as a simple mathematical fact that that is best handled with rational, logical thinking. For this person, having a budget, setting aside money in savings, or funding a retirement account may seem obvious, indisputable and have only one right answer.
For other people, money is a very emotional, personal, and maybe even spiritual concept that goes way beyond dollars and cents. For this person, existential and moral considerations may outweigh logic and common sense, and “what sparks joy” may involve giving away money, using it for humanitarian causes, or making life choices without considering financial gain.
When you are stuck in a polarized argument, each partner can take a more extreme position than they actually feel. In an effort to emphasize how important it is to save money, one might take a stand or draw a line around some aspects of how they manage money that is more rigid with their partner than they might be with other people. Ask yourself if you would take the same hard stance if your sister, friend, or child was having this conversation with you.
Notice where your values or position are very different from your partner’s and see if you can express flexibility or willingness to compromise. You don’t have to agree or go along with your partner’s way of doing things as long as you are willing to listen and consider their wishes.
Money can bring out hidden control or power issues
Take some time to think about how much you value power and control in your life. Perhaps you are someone who believes in cooperation and collaboration and you would like all decisions to be joint decisions. Or perhaps you value independence and self-sufficiency and you want to have the right and responsibility to make your own decisions in life, whether it is about money or other things.
Remember that money is a symbolic concept; the value and meaning of money is what we give to it.
Very often couples argue about specific decisions or topics related to money without realizing the underlying dynamic is really about who has power and influence in the relationship. There is nothing like a disagreement about financial choices to bring out deep-seated needs for control in some of us, turning us into micro-managers, anxious accountants, or frugal financiers. Often, the more one person keeps close tabs on finances, the more their partner seems to lose track of receipts, spend extra on groceries, or forget to pay bills in time.
Money can bring out hidden or unspoken expectations
Many families now have dual wage earners and partners who share in housework, childcare, and earning money for the family equally. However, even as we wish for equality and mutuality in our partnership, we may be influenced by internalized and sometimes invisible expectations and templates for gender and role expectations that inform our reactions to each other.
This is particularly true for couples dealing with additional strains or responsibilities that come from caring for children, aging parents, or work demands that are non-traditional. For example, one partner works from home so there is an implicit expectation that they will get more chores done during the day. Or one parent has a flexible job so they are expected to be the primary caregiver for their children even though their job is just as demanding or stressful as their partner’s.
These implicit or internalized expectations can show up in discussions around money in the form of competitive statements about how hard one person works, the difficulty or stress-level associated with each person’s role, or resentments about how much free time or flexibility each partner has. Couples who argue about role expectations are usually asking their partner to value their own contribution and time and to see them as an equal. The greatest gift you can offer is to honor and respect your partner’s dreams about career, time, or work-life balance and help each other feel supported.
Remember that money is a symbolic concept; the value and meaning of money is what we give to it. Our language, attitude, and willingness to self-reflect will all impact how deep your conversation might go. Pay attention to the words you use to describe wealth, financial choices, the future, or your partner’s values.
Bring a positive and collaborative attitude to this conversation so you can focus on what is possible and good and avoid falling into anxiety and worry. Use this as an opportunity to know yourself deeply and share that knowledge with your partner. When you can explore, admit, and disclose your own inner templates, expectations, and assumptions, you set the stage for not only a productive dialogue about money but a better emotional bond with your partner going forward.
This article originally appeared on the Gottman Institute’s blog and was reposted with permission.