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When it comes to money and relationships, we’re all a bit like Goldilocks — this ex spent too much, this ex was too cheap. It can be a long, difficult search for someone who is just right.
Even in a long-term relationship, you can be unpleasantly surprised by someone you thought you knew well. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist and author in Santa Rosa, California, witnessed her then-husband get served with a collection notice for a debt she didn’t know about. He tried to explain it away, saying he forgot to tell her about the issue and it wasn’t a big deal.
“My gut instinct said, ‘No, there’s more to this story,’” Manly says. (Reader, she eventually divorced him.)
A lot of life decisions that couples make together have money at their core, so you need to know whether your partner’s personal choices will cause problems for you both. Money red flags don’t have to be relationship-enders. In fact, they can be an opportunity to emerge stronger than ever, provided you’re both willing to be honest and do the work to get your relationship to a better place.
Here’s what doing the work entails.
Figure yourself out
Maybe you break up with someone the moment they admit to having money-related skeletons in the closet. Maybe you stick it out, even when your partner exhibits serious lapses in judgment.
Everyone’s boundaries are influenced by past experiences. It’s worth examining your boundaries’ origins because they may not be serving you well. Are you punishing a new partner because of the actions of an ex? Do you set unrealistic expectations to make up for your spendthrift parent?
In cases like these, you’re reacting to other people’s values instead of living according to your own. By setting your own values, you can bring your true self into a relationship — instead of a pile of baggage.
“Without that foundation of honesty and transparency, you knowing you, you communicating that to the other person, you’ll have nowhere to go,” Manly says. “Your relationship won’t grow.”
Exercise those money-talk muscles
When you can both speak honestly without the fear of judgment, you can tackle issues as a team and emerge with a stronger bond. When dating, start small by sharing a financial decision you made for yourself. When you’re together longer, you can discuss and jointly make lower-stakes money choices as practice for the more serious stuff. If something makes you uncomfortable, mention it so you can talk about why that might be the case.
And remember, even if your partner has money habits you don’t agree with, don’t treat them like a rebellious teenager. If you scold them, they’re going to become secretive about their spending.
“Everything should be able to be worked through if there is mutual respect and love for one another,” says Tiffany Welka, a financial adviser in Livonia, Michigan. “If you have those things in your relationship, realistically, hard things are going to come up, and you have to learn to overcome them together.”
Don't ignore warning signs
When the red flags are flapping in hurricane-force winds, it doesn’t matter how much you love someone. Here are some signs you may be in a potentially unhealthy situation:
Your partner won't talk about money: “One of the biggest things that I've found is that if someone is unwilling to discuss their finances with you, that’s a really big red flag,” Welka says. “It means that they’re hiding a part of their life and they want to keep it separate from the relationship.”
Your partner has an overly positive attitude: Positivity can be a bad thing when it’s a defense mechanism used to avoid dealing with serious issues like overdue bills. “The reality is that we all have good and bad things happen to us in our financial life,” says Ed Coambs, a financial therapist near Charlotte, North Carolina. In Coambs’ view, when you can reflect on your money choices and acknowledge both what you’re proud of and what you’re ashamed of, it’s a sign of financial maturity.
You see signs of dishonesty: Sometimes this behavior can be caused by deep negative emotions about money that go back to childhood. But your partner can hurt you financially by withholding information, taking money out of joint accounts without your knowledge, and secretly getting into debt.
Your partner exhibits controlling or abusive behavior: Your partner may deny you access to money, forbid you from working, hide money in secret accounts or steal your identity. According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, financial abuse occurs in 99% of domestic violence cases.
They refuse to resolve issues: It’s not promising when your partner won’t work with you to problem-solve. Consider it a sign that your time together may have run its course. “That’s a difficult place to get to,” Coambs says. “But sometimes it’s necessary.”