When it comes to talking with a spouse or partner about money, many people shy away. It can be scary—but it doesn’t have to be. Positive and frequent communication is key.
A great way to reduce the stress of talking about money is to discuss things frequently with your partner. Don’t wait for a financial crisis to talk! Some couples find it best to schedule regular discussions about money—say, every Sunday afternoon—while others take a more casual approach. However you and your partner decide to do it, make sure that it is a frequent topic in your marriage.
Some couples avoid talking about money because it is stressful and uncomfortable. Here are some tips on how to have these important conversations.
Discuss Goals and Values—Not Just Dollar Amounts
Money means different things to different people. For some, it represents security, power, or status. For others, it is the ability to buy things, travel, or start a business. It’s important to talk with your spouse about your long-term goals and what money means to you. It’s very likely that you’ll have different views about what money means, and talking about it will help you get on the same page. Don’t be afraid to go to a couples therapist or a financial professional to help with this discussion, if you need.
Even if your long-term goals are aligned, it is possible that your short-term values will still be different. A baking enthusiast may feel lucky to find vanilla beans on sale for $300 a pound, while their partner balks at the price tag and wants to buy a bottle of imitation extract for $3.99. Someone who loves clothes may know that these $175 shoes are a steal, while their partner—who shops exclusively at thrift stores—may disagree.
These are not solely issues of dollar amount, so much as they are about what each partner feels is important. Understanding what your partner values and making any necessary adjustments together will help you work out your budget and your finances.
The Four Horsemen
Actually talking about money can be difficult. But disagreements about money don’t have to lead to lasting marital problems. Healthy, respectful communication can assist in working out money issues.
Prominent family scientist and couples therapist John Gottman frequently lists four things that couples should avoid while communicating. He calls them the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” They are:
Criticizing is not the same as voicing a complaint or a critique. Criticism attacks the partner’s character or being. For example, a complaint may be “I’m feeling concerned about your IKEA spending yesterday. I thought we agreed to consult each other if we were going to spend more than $200.” A criticism, on the other hand, could look like “You overspent the entertainment budget again. Why do you always do that? You are so selfish! You don’t even care about me and how hard I’m working.” One addresses the issue at hand, the other attacks the partner’s character. Criticism frequently leads to defensiveness.
While criticism attacks your partner’s character, contempt assumes a position of moral superiority over them. Contempt can be behaving disrespectfully, being sarcastic, rolling our eyes or using mimicking body language, scoffing, calling them names, etc. “You bought another idiotic video game? Are you kidding me? You are such a child.” Attacking a partner from a position of perceived relative superiority is terrible for a relationship, and will make discussing finances nearly impossible. Don’t do it!
We’ve all been defensive at some point; it’s usually a response to criticism. When we feel like we’ve been accused, we fight back and play the victim to get our partner to back off. “Yeah, well, you know how stressed I’ve been! I deserve something special. It’s not my fault you aren’t any fun.” Thing is, it doesn’t work—because it’s really a way of blaming your partner, and makes healthy conflict management impossible.
Stonewalling—usually a response to contempt—is when one partner shuts down, withdraws, and stops responding to the other. Stonewalling is a result of feeling physiologically flooded. However, ignoring the issue will not fix it. When we start to stonewall, we may not be able to think or respond logically and kindly. If that becomes the case, it is important to request a break in the conversation and pick it back up after 20 minutes—or more—to allow your body to calm down.
While most relationships will involve the Four Horsemen at some point, healthy communicators avoid them as much as possible and do more to repair them when they show up. If you catch your money conversations sliding into these bad habits, know that you have the power to turn them around, and create a positive environment for discussing finances.