Money can be a minefield in any relationship: No matter where you step, you risk setting something off—which is why so many couples have trouble talking about it.
“Everyone has an area of vulnerability. Money can trigger sensitivities because it touches who we are and where we come from,” explains Pam Friedman, a Certified Financial Planner and author who specializes in financial planning for divorce.
With Friedman’s help, we looked at four common money phrases that often lead to conflict, why we’re quick to react to them, and how to address them in a way that’s better for our stress levels as well as our relationship.
“I can’t believe you bought that.”
What this conveys: You messed up! As a result, you feel defensive and ashamed.
What your partner really meant: I don’t think we’re on the same page regarding how our money should be spent.
How to productively address this comment: Resist the urge to counter-attack, says Friedman. Instead of turning this into a game of “who’s worse,” take the high road by addressing the issue (“I know you’re worried I’m spending money frivolously”) and put your actions in context.
The way to do this may surprise you: Talk about your parents, not each other. Share what you observed in them and how that influenced you. “The reason this works is because it gives your habits context and helps you learn about your individual histories around money, which you might not have known previously,” says Friedman.
If your husband freaks out that you spent $150 on acupuncture sessions, you might explain how your mother was a proponent of alternative medicine. While this may seem exorbitant to someone who grew up popping Advil for pain, you can make a show of faith by detailing other ways you’re cutting back to afford the expense.
“I don’t want to talk about money.”
What this conveys: Don’t talk to me. As a result, you’re frustrated and angry at being shut down.
What your partner really meant: I’m uncomfortable and afraid if we talk about money, we’ll get into a fight.
How to productively address this comment: Not talking about your finances is not an option if you’re going to share a life and responsibilities together—but you can’t force or bully someone into having this conversation. Instead, focus on creating a warm and safe environment to discuss it, as in not when you’re rushing out the door.
“Take a deep breath and invite your partner to join you in coming up with a plan that will allow you to be honest with each other,” says Friedman. Set up the conversation as one in which you won’t try to trick or blame the other person. Talk about what goals you have together and how you will meet them.
“We can’t afford to do that.”
What this conveys: You’re unrealistic. As a result, you feel scolded.
What your partner really meant: Either I’m afraid we’ll never pay off what we owe and we’ll be stuck in debt forever, or I’m afraid we’ll never get ahead on our savings goals.
How to productively address this comment: Make a plan to strike a better balance between saving and spending. Friedman tells the story of a wife who couldn’t get her husband to even discuss going on vacation. “He believed they had to have a specific amount of money in place before they could even consider it,” she says.
Friedman helped them talk without resorting to a tug-of-war of wills: “I explained to them that money has a role and a purpose—and it’s not just for saving. You have to live your life, too.”
She explained that it wasn’t a question of if they’d save enough or pay off their debt, but whether they could take a little longer to do so. Money is not an on/off switch, and how you spend and save falls along a spectrum.
“Have you paid off that credit card yet?”
What this conveys: Are you still slacking off on your responsibilities? As a result, you feel offended and hurt.
What your partner really meant: I’m worried you’ll sink further into debt—and take me with you.
How to productively address this comment: While it’s natural to want to encourage your partner to engage in smarter financial habits, like moving closer to being debt-free, it’s important not to play the scold.
Friedman’s advice? “Step back and talk about it in a way that isn’t judgy,” she says. Above all, make sure your partner understands you’re there as support, and that you can help.
But Friedman doesn’t think you should go as far as to pay it off for them. “That’s where you run into resentment issues,” she says. A far better idea, if you want to go down that road, is to come up with a plan in which you pay X amount for every Y amount she pays, which makes it a joint effort. (Or you pick up more of the bills now, so he can put more towards his debt.)
Bottom line, says Friedman, is to remember money’s not the root of all evil. It’s just money.
“I think we attach more weight to it than it deserves,” she says. “Yes, it has an emotional component, but if we can admit to those emotions and figure out where those feelings come from, we can talk about them and keep them from ruining the relationship.”
Support, and communicate openly with, each other and that will help you keep both your relationship and your finances in good shape.