Having Plenty Doesn’t Mean Money Issues Go Away: 11 Steps For Couples
A Columbia University-trained psychotherapist with more than a decade of clinical experience, I’ve come to believe that what it means to help people in therapy is to help them create their lives and I relish in this challenging, playful activity.
Financial Couples Therapy Doesn’t Just Address A Lack Of Money
In my work with financial couples therapy, I’ve learned that everyone feels they don’t have enough money, even couples with plenty. I find it sobering to recognize that even folks with access to money that I could never imagine worry about money. It’s important to me, as well as the couples I work with, to recognize that money is, in fact, important. It provides many aspects of stability and it creates options.
Whether acknowledged or not (or if we like to think of it this way or not), marriage is distinct from other kinds of partnerships in that it comes with an explicit, legally binding financial partnership. But, money matters, even when a couple isn’t formally married, living together or raising children together. Heck, just going out to dinner involves money.
To address some of the money issues I see in financial couples therapy for couples who find themselves with plenty, I’ve broken down eleven steps for couples to consider in terms of their relationship with money:
1. Money isn’t just a part of our lives. It is our life.
In my therapy practice, I’ve found money is an area that is particularly prone to causing couples to miss the bigger, interrelated whole. When we talk about any “category of life” (money, sex, relationship, job), we are, for some purpose whether discussion or investigation, artificially separating that thing from the other categories. However, we are all simultaneously relations, sexual, emotional and physical beings, and all of these descriptors are influenced by money.
That doesn’t mean money is the most important category of life, but it is ever-present. Separating money from the rest of the relationship can cause couples to not see certain aspects of their lives that are relevant to the conversation.
2. A decision to “just not think about money” is still a decision about how to relate to money
No decision is still a decision. One partner choosing to not get involved without a clear agreement is also a decision. It’s important to make active decisions, even in an environment of plenty. There is always relative scarcity, meaning there are always limits. Perhaps a couple wants to not think so much about money (i.e. “We have plenty, so no worries”). Aside from the fact that could lead to overspending with real consequences, it ignores the ways that resentment, anxiety and disagreements can still emerge regardless of how much money one has. Conversations about money aren’t just conversations about managing a tight budget.
3. When in doubt, err on the side of having the conversation about money
Remember, talking clearly and proactively about money is the best way to make money feel less important. Make heads-up, sober-light-of-day decisions. And similarly, err on the side of clarity. Not every couple needs a written budget on a strict set of numbers for each expense, but being clear on what’s decided is a great way to reduce the risk of future conflicts or troubles with money.
4. Create a no-shame zone to talk about money fears
Conversations about money are emotional conversations. There is no such thing as being unemotional about money. What allows those who can talk easily about money to do so isn’t that it’s unemotional. Their emotionality is well-understood and organized in such a way that it doesn’t disrupt the conversation.
Create a no-shame zone (in so many words) about fears and other emotional baggage that gets brought up with money. Ask one another, “What does this raise for you? Is it scary? How come?” Investigate why saving more or less, or having more or less risk tolerance is important. Talk about early experiences with money and the ways money was talked about (or not) in the context of growing up.
5. Acknowledge that spending money can sometimes be uncomfortable
In some cases, when a family is particularly well-off, having and spending money can be uncomfortable for one or both partners. There can be guilt about deserving it or not feeling as though it’s earned. They might have lingering emotional baggage about spending being a source of shame.
We tend to hide things that are scary not just from others, but from ourselves. However, it can still influence us a good deal. In other words, talking about money comes with many of the same anxieties as money itself. Financial couples therapy, in this regards, is, at first, about making that baggage apparent and helping couples sort out how both partners can talk about this emotional baggage in a way that feels safe.
6. Keep things in perspective
This doesn’t need to be guilt-driven. In fact, there is value in being proud of money, success and being in the position to enjoy opportunities with money. It’s easy to get caught up in living life in a particular way, spending and enjoying certain privileges. Recognizing that you have plenty can help worries about money be less terrifying.
7. Don’t get caught up in the idea that having more money will solve money anxiety.
Having more money doesn’t necessarily mean not feeling like you don’t have enough money. The more money you have, the more you are likely to spend time with people who have even more. Unless you’re Bill Gates, other people will always have more than you do.
8. Distribute labor in regards to money management
Different people in a relationship have different skills related to money. One partner may be better at managing assets and keeping track of a budget, while another may be better at saving or finding thoughtful ways of truly enjoying money. A sort of distribution of labor–one partner manages this aspect and another manages another aspect–might sensibly emerge. Be active about deciding what each person wants to learn from the other.
Further, be aware of a condition where the person with a particular role in managing the money is in a position to make more decisions. At the same time, both partners don’t need to always know everything.
9. Be conscious of whose money it is
One common split in couples is that one partner is the primary earner, earns more or brought more money into the relationship. That partner may, perhaps, feel that they ought to have more say in how money is spent (or simply, spend more of it), whereas the other partner may have a sense that those funds are fully the property of both partners and therefore, financial decisions should be based more on a principle of equality. There are many variations of this conflict. When they’re unspoken or a couple identifies the values but are stuck, financial couples therapy can help couples look at things more creatively in the light of these differences.
10. Have a doomsday plan
Ok, doomsday might be an exaggeration. But, short of Armageddon or the collapse of the world economy, what happens if the market crashes or the breadwinner loses his or her job? Or if there’s a similar unexpected tragedy that deeply affects the family finances?
Save money in proportion to your fears around this–how much savings do you need to feel confident that you’ll be ok? This is important not only as a good strategy for managing risk, but for managing the emotional ups and downs (and what if’s) that can come with money. Part of what it means to have means is that money can buy you, in a sense, a backup plan. Would it be disappointing to take a major hit? Of course, but not existentially threatening. This keeps fears in a certain context.
It’s likely that any given couple is struggling with money in the relationship even if they aren’t aware of it. Often the very fact of naming these challenges and sharing them with someone outside of the relationship is relieving. There are all variations of anxiety that become present when talking (or avoiding talking) about money. Couples therapy helps to manage these emotions, create more space to talk about them and create conditions that can help partners heal old scars and form their own, new way of doing money together.