Marriage marks the merger of many things, including money stories. Discussing childhood experiences related to dollars and cents is not typically on the top of a checklist of topics to cover for couples who are dating, engaged, or even those who have been wearing wedding bands for a decade. Yet, they need to be happening earlier and more frequently they often take place. This is why: When couples take the steps to cross the threshold of my office to sit on the couch and have hard conversations, money is often part of the story they tell. Financial tension and conflict in relationships have the potential create strain, stress, or even obliterate a bond between two people.
I explain to couples that relationships are not just the meeting and fusion of individuals, they are the merger of two families. This is not Freudian psychobabble. It is a reality. The ways in which we see ourselves and interact with the world around us cannot escape the mark of our history. We may choose to do a sharp-turn and course correct, using early experiences or models as a picture of what not to do. We may also find patterns, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that we carry forward—consciously and unconsciously—playing out in our adult lives in various ways, shapes, and forms.
Our relationship to, beliefs about, and behavior with money is no exception. In my work, I have couples unpack their individual financial baggage, so that in a relationship they can feel more skilled. The goal is to facilitate understanding of what needs to eventually occur in order to organize the suitcases to make their money luggage fit together. It is powerful to shift from being encumbered by baggage to confidently carrying bags.
Money was modeled to you if you realized it or not. Those models likely color your relationship with currency today. Your comfort talking about it. Emotion that is linked to it. Your choices and understanding of how to save, spend, and give. Silence regarding money. An absence of teaching and demonstrating how to manage money prudently and plan for the future. These things scream just as loudly and imprint as deep as regular conversations and scaffolding behaviors of financial literacy.
Your family had unspoken rules about finances. They may have included:
You may be operating under these rules long after leaving the house. They may be helping you. They may be hindering you. How you play by the book or break these early rules is probably impacting your current relational game.
Adults benefit from understanding the ways in which their own money story may be shaping their current relationship with financial priorities, money management, wealth, salary, spending, investing, budgeting, and potential fiscal anxieties. Becoming financially self-aware is an important first step to building relational money safeguards. Developing an understanding about ways in which a partner may be on the same, similar, or radically different financial page from you in your relationship is key to developing a strategy for effectively working together in this aspect of your shared life. If you can spell out the terms of your prenup but struggle to describe the money landscape of your fiancée’s family of origin, it may be time to schedule a financial first date.
To foster both self-reflection and engage in conversations that can build and bridge financial understanding between couples, I encourage conversations with some of following questions as starting points:
A spirit of curiosity and reflection, instead interactions laced with emotions of of blame or anger, will pay spades in an attempt to begin to repair financial discord between two parties. In order to build a bridge to where you want to go, you must understand how you got to where you are today. Begin by owning your own participation in the current dynamic and dysfunction. Understanding the origins of some of your dance steps in order to appreciate where you may be tripped up with two left feet can help you disentangle and begin to financially tango in step. With communication rehearsal, repetition, and practice, you can be waltzing through your world in financial sync with your partner. Being intentional about having focused money conversations early and often can help to develop financial resilience within a relationship. It probably won’t seem easy out of the gate, but I can promise it will be easier over time.
And you can trust the therapist sitting across from the couch: time well spent truly is money.