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When it comes to cash, couples are bedeviled by a lack of candor. Studies from around the world show that people are more comfortable talking about sex, politics and death than their finances. But if we can’t shake the money talk taboo with our partner, we’re putting that relationship in peril, research suggests.
The frequency of money arguments is the greatest predictor of future divorce, a study of 4,500 couples showed. Fights over children, in-laws or sex aren’t as nasty as arguments over cash, the 2013 Kansas State University study found.
Yet we largely remain silent on the subject until the shouting starts. Why is the money talk so hard? “There’s a lot of money shame in our society,” says wealth psychology expert Kathleen Burns Kingsbury, author of the recent book “Breaking Money Silence.”
We largely remain silent on the subject of money until the shouting starts.”
“Individually, we all have a money mindset — how we think and feel about money — which affects our savings, spending, gifting and investing every day,” Kingsbury says. “The problem is most of us are not aware of it because we don’t examine it.”
If you want to talk openly about money with your partner, you first must get honest with yourself. Some tips on how to begin:
Face your fear
Many people avoid talking about cash because of all the times past “conversations” with their partner ended with harsh words and pointed fingers. But that avoidance often begins in our own minds, and a reluctance to admit our own part of the problem, experts say. Those private battles explode to the surface when a money problem turns into a money crisis — which further perpetuates the cycle of silence, shame and anger.
With money, “we usually go from ‘I blew it’ to ‘I’m doing good’ to ‘I blew it’ again,” Kingsbury says, without examining the path between those peaks and valleys.
Don’t get mad — get curious
To understand your own financial patterns without descending into despair and avoidance, take a deep breath and play armchair psychologist with yourself. Examine the situation as you would an interesting problem at work. Or consider how you would give advice to a friend.
“Become curious about the situation ... really look at it with some emotional distance, like: ‘Why did I spend $1,000 on Christmas gifts when I only had a budget of $500?” Kingsbury says. Maybe you overspent to make up for the lean holidays of your youth. Maybe, Kingsbury suggests, you got sucked into “all the psychology of buying tricks they do at the stores, or maybe you just weren’t feeling good and splurged.”
If you can’t look at your own behavior with some detachment, those emotions will boil over when you and your partner open the bills.”
If you can’t look at your own behavior with some detachment, you can bet those emotions will boil over when you and your partner open the bills. “Adding that insight is going to help individuals heal from any money problems or traumas that they’ve had, and also be better equipped to communicate that to [their] partner,” she says.
Seek understanding, not victories
As you take a clear-eyed look at your own spending habits, take that spirit of curiosity into the conversation with your partner. What emotions arise for them, beyond the surface fear and anger? What patterns would they like to change, and why do they think these woes continue to repeat?
Look for understanding, not blame, Kingsbury advises. Scoring victories in money arguments with someone you love is like winning battles in a war you both lose. “The blame game just perpetuates the cycle” of emotional reaction and overreaction, Kingsbury says.
“You’re not going to get it right the first time, or second time, or third time. … There is no ‘right way’ to have these conversations,” Kingsbury says.
What’s important is that you emerge on the same side, not as warring camps. “Two people can tackle money problems much better than one, if they are on the same page,” she says.
If not? Then the divorce statistics tell the tale.
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