Money, despite what any of us want to believe about “love conquering all”, matters more than almost other issue in relationships. According to one US survey, money is the number one issue married couples fight about. In the UK, money disagreements are the second biggest cause of divorce, only a small way behind infidelity, according to a 2017 survey by Relate (www.relate.org.uk).
And yet, the same Relate survey, only one in ten couples has a discussion about money, before they commit to sharing a house, getting married or having children – indeed any step which signifies to them a committed relationship.
At LoveRelations, we see many couples in crisis point in their relationship, where money is the major cause of disagreement. As a relationship psychotherapist, I find myself asking all too frequently: “Did you and your partner ever have a conversation about money?”, knowing that for many, this topic was easier to ignore in the early, exciting stages of a relationship.
Many relationships today begin when each partner has some financial “history”, both good and bad. By this, we mean a salary, perhaps a property, savings and a pension, but also some debt, credit card bills, mortgage, child support from a previous relationship. Furthermore, it’s rate that both partners earn the same or are even in a similar income rage.
At LoveRelations, we encourage each partner to be completely open with the other about income and about debt or fixed costs. We notice how difficult this can be for couples to be completely frank about their individual finances. One couple we have been working with recently each disclosed a large credit card debt which they had been hiding from the other. For many partners, there is an enormous amount of shame attached to what they earn and what they might owe.
The second step we encourage at LoveRelations, is a frank discussion about attitudes towards money. Many partners blithely assume that their over half shares their “save at least 10%” belief or their “what’s left over each month, is ours to enjoy” attitude. And when these two different attitudes towards spending and saving occur, the scope for resentment is huge.
Money is so much more than currency. It is an energetic form which we as human beings project love, security, esteem and worth on to. Finding out what money means to our partner is a fundamental step in establishing the sort of relationship we want and need.
Establishing each of our attitudes towards money, allows couples to then set some joint boundaries around money. What is a prudent amount to save? What is reasonable to spend on going out or on holidays? Does that sit well with our partner?
An integral part of this discussion should be about financial goals. Again, many couples assume their partner knows and concurs with their plan to pay off the mortgage in five years, or to put two children through university education. At LoveRelations, we encourage partners to set out where they want to be in five years’ time, or ten years’ time? What are steps the couple needs to take to get there?
Perhaps the biggest financial hurdle a couple faces is when there is a difference in income. When one partner earns a considerable amount and the other less so, it is not uncommon for shame and resentment to build up. One couple we work with at LoveRelations had enjoyed a blissful early part of their relationship, eating out regularly, enjoying long weekends abroad, regularly taking taxis. In her shame and fear, the lesser earning (female) partner had neither said that she couldn’t financial match this lifestyle, nor set out what she could afford to contribute to the couple’s social activities. Her higher earning partner, who was equally reluctant to talk about finances, held no expectation that she should match him, yet he was full of resentment that she seemed reluctant to offer to pick up some of the smaller bills.
When the couple began to talk, to really look at their assumptions and expectations, it became obvious that the lack of communication had been the cause of all their resentments. In their LoveRelations therapy, this couple was able to draw up some guidelines around who paid for what, with the higher earner picking up some of the larger bills and the lower earning, contributing in a smaller but nevertheless significant way.
Some couples and indeed some relationship therapists have very fixed ideas on the rights and wrongs of joint or separate accounts. “Marriage is a partnership”, writes one well-known relationship therapist in his regular blogs, “to maintain separate accounts is to undermine the fundamental principles of a shared venture.”
At LoveRelations, we help each couple find out what might work for them. With some couples, we notice that one partner may be very keen on keeping a separate account. While there may be nothing wrong in principle in separate accounts be it may that a partner is holding on to something in secret. “Financial infidelity” is the term used to describe a bank or savings account of stash of money, keep secret from a partner. Just as romantic infidelity erodes trust, financial infidelity undermines all the principles of honesty and transparency so vital for a healthy relationship.
If a couple is to have separate accounts, it is often wise to have a joint account too. We would encourage both parties to be frank around the individual and joint accounts. What goes into each “pot”? What are the rules for the joint account and what bills should come out of it. One couple we are working with has an agreement that any purchase over £100 cannot be made without the other’s consent.
For some partners, all the boundary setting and agreement making around money and spending can feel daunting. “It’s so unromantic,” said one partner in a LoveRelations therapy session. “I find it really embarrassing to talk about,” admitted another.
As a relationship psychotherapist, what I notice is that every couple feels great relief when they begin to communicate around money. Relationships are ultimately about partnership and each party will bring a different dynamic to the partnership. It is only through honest communication that each of us can set out our needs and our goals. Money might not be the “root of all evil”, but not talking is the catalyst of so many relationship miseries.