The Deeper Reason It's So Hard To Talk About Money Problems With Your Spouse

Money issues in a marriage can lead to a divorce if they're not discussed.

Woman talking to spouse about money problems. pixelshot | Canva

If you’re in a relationship, I think you’ll agree that M-O-N-E-Y can be a bad word. Even when there’s plenty of it, talking rationally about it is a chore. But money and marriage go hand-in-hand. Each of us individually sees finances, depending on how we were brought up and what we have learned as adults. So how do two people decide how much money they need and how to spend it best? There's so much to consider when it comes to money problems in your marriage: Is it more important that your wife goes back to work (and you two hire a nanny) or is staying home with the kids a priority? If one of you has a much better-paying job than the other, how do you divide things up? Should you each know everything about the other’s money business, or are some things private?


And those are some of the simpler situations surrounding money and marriage. What if one or both of you have been married before, and there are financial responsibilities connected? Many spouses can become enraged about how much the alimony and/or child support from a previous marriage takes away from their shared income. Do either of you have elderly parents that need care and financial assistance? The list goes on and on. Every one of these money problems is a serious question, with no right or wrong answers. Personal finances are anything but rational.

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Why is money such an emotionally-infused subject? Money, in essence, is simply a medium of exchange. However, money stands for everything we need for survival — and that's what makes it so fraught with anxiety and defensiveness. 

Somewhere in our primitive brains, we know that our lives depend on this stuff. Of course, so does our position in society and our ability to get all the nice stuff that makes us comfortable and leaves us feeling satisfied. So, here we are, smart, civilized, generous, kind people, who can become angry, frightened banshees around the topic of shared finances. We forget that the money most of us are talking about doesn't mean the difference between life and death (as it does, for some people in some countries).


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Why can't you and your partner agree about financial priorities? At least one partner, and usually both, is under the sway of their ingrained "shoulds" surrounding finances and long-term financial goals: "It’s good to save, and bad to spend." "This is my life NOW, and I want to enjoy it!" We need to have at least a year’s expenses put aside, just in case…" And so on. I think you can hear that every one of these thoughts about money is, in its way, reasonable. And partners can get deeply entangled in the idea that one point of view is 'better" than another. As a result, many couples just give up and resent one another’s choices, feeling impoverished by what feels like the other’s greed or lack of flexibility — and the wedge between you grows.


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How can you start a productive discussion — and eventually get on the same page? The first thing that any of us can do is to become aware that we have a lot of baggage surrounding our thoughts about finances and declare a truce. Recognize that most of these bags and boxes are non-vital. You have a roof over your head, food on the table, and clothing to wear. You have heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. You even have plenty of entertainment at home, I’ll bet. You're lucky to know that your world isn't going to collapse tomorrow. The next step is committing to a time and place to talk — ideally, a scenario when you will both be relatively relaxed and well-rested. It might even be useful to choose a neutral place, like a coffee shop or the nearest Barnes & Noble. You’re not going to be deciding anything yet — just talking. Even just talking about talking.

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Then, let yourselves become curious. For example, why do you suppose your partner has that crazy idea that you need a year's worth of savings before you can go on that trip? Listen to what she's saying and try to identify with what she feels — rather than solely fixating on the money goals he's derived from these feelings. Keep in mind, that doesn't mean you have to agree! But most importantly, don’t try to change anything yet. To help this conversation stay focused, each of you could make a list of your financial priorities: What do you consider a necessity? A luxury? An investment? And why?

With an increased understanding of what is important to each of you, at the very least you won’t think your partner is nuts for wanting this and not wanting that. You might even find that you agree on some issues. At this point, you’ve made a space for discussion, where there was none previously. I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty of developing a financial plan that you can both be comfortable with. (We’ll save that for another time.) At this moment, even with nothing solved, you are nevertheless several miles closer to developing financial fluency and transparency. And that is a worthy goal!

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Cheryl Gerson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and Board Certified Diplomate, in private practice in New York City.