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Six Steps To Stop Money From Ruining Your Relationship

(3 minute read)

My mother was a very wise therapist, and one of the first to practice in Hong Kong in the 1970’s. When asked if cross cultural marriages were particularly difficult, she replied “Every marriage is cross cultural.” And truly, when we marry we bring the culture of our own family, merge it with that of our partner’s family and negotiate a brand new culture of our own. That means a whole new set of family rules and norms have to be negotiated: where we go on vacation, how children should behave, how often we visit in-laws, who takes responsibility for what in the home, and so on.

And then there’s money. Every family has a unique view of the purpose and value of money, and when two people come from very different money cultures, there’s going to be a lot of work to come up with a compromise that both sides can live with. Money touches everything: child rearing, housing, clothing, food, vacations, transportation. There’s barely a decision that we make that doesn’t have a financial component.

If you’re married, or in a long term relationship, you have almost certainly had arguments — or at least impassioned discussions — about money. What is it that makes money so fraught with emotion? We may fight about the dollars and cents, but the fuel to that fire isn’t cash: It’s usually the clash of values between us and our partner.

Money can buy many things: A sense of safety; social status; a sense of our own beauty; fun; comfort; intellectual stimulation; stimulation to our senses through taste, vision, hearing, etc. It can purchase a sense of virtue when we give it away, or excitement when we gamble or superiority when we splash it around. And since we are all unique, what we want through using money is different from what other people want. Which is why we are generally pretty critical of the way other people spend (or don’t spend) their money. We all know which of our siblings or in-laws is particularly cheap, or bad at repaying debts, or spends on the wrong things, or throws money away.

It’s fine to disagree with the way other people are using money, but when that other person is your spouse, you need strategies to ensure that you don’t end up feeling disrespected, ignored or furious — or all three.

Here’s six steps toward that goal:

1/ What are your values? Both of you should spend an hour thinking through where you spend money, and what it does for each of you. Make a list of the major expenditures (or savings) and how you feel when those happen. Do you like a fat bank account for the sense of safety it offers? If so, what is it protecting you from? Does money help give you the sense of fitting in with your peer group? Or does it buy the ability to give your child the best start in life? Is it the feeling you get when you use it to help others? Or something else instead? Money and its use always has a deeper meaning.

2/ Learn about the other person’s values. Sit down with your spouse and have them take you through their list. Have them explain how they feel about each expenditure (or savings). Ask them what makes them feel that way. Ask them how their parents view spending in those areas, and whether they feel differently from their parents. Don’t judge: just listen, understand and learn.

3/ Check that you understand. Explain back to your partner — without judgment — what they’ve just told you. It’s too easy to hear the other person’s words and filter them through your own worldview — you need to be sure you “get” them. You might say, for example, “I hear how important it is for you to have money in the bank. You remember growing up poor, and how scared that made you feel, and you never want to feel that way again.” Or you might say “I understand how important it is for you to have a nice car. It’s a safe and comfortable place for you to relax before and after your stressful job. It gives you a sense of power to get behind the wheel of your car.” Make sure you don’t add any editorial — you’re there to understand, not to tell them that they’re being cheap, or wasting money on a fast car that does nothing but sit in Hong Kong traffic.

4/ Explain your own values and check that they understand. Now you reverse the process. It’s your turn to explain to your partner what money does for you. And to have your partner say back to you — again without judgment — what you just told them. If they get it wrong, correct them, and have them try again to explain it to you. Stop only when you’re comfortable that they really understand what you’re feeling.

5/ Look for ways to meet the needs of both parties. This may seem strange — after all, your previous arguments have been about trying to hash out a compromise, or at least, trying to convince the other side. But now that you both understand the values that underlie your partner’s spending patterns, the conversation will be different — and better. It will be much easier getting to a solution.

6/ If this doesn’t work…. The steps above aren’t guaranteed to work because the source to some money conflicts lies outside of culture and values. In some cases, money is a proxy: something to fight about because you won’t or can’t fight about what is really bothering you. If you’re not feeling respected, or cherished, money is a great way to exact retribution. If you’re feeling controlled, money is one way to assert independence. If your conflicts over money are really conflicts over something else, then you need to address that ‘something else’ first.


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