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These 3 Questions Can Save Your Relationship

April 3, 2014
Personal Finance
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What’s the greatest predictor that your relationship will go bust? It’s not problems in the bedroom, secret lovers or conflicts over raising your kids. If you want your relationship to survive, research suggests the key is knowing how to talk about cash.

“Arguments about money is by far the top predictor of divorce,” said Sonya Britt, program director of personal financial planning at Kansas State University. “It’s not children, sex, in-laws or anything else. It’s money — for both men and women.”

She led a study of 4,500 households that showed that the more couples argued about cash early in a relationship, the more likely they were to divorce. Arguments about cash were longer and more tenacious than any other source of marital rancor, the study found.

And it isn’t always about lack of cash, either. This trend cuts across socioeconomic lines – even wealthy couples were found more likely to divorce if they had money arguments early in the relationship, according to the study.

“It may be that fights about money are actually fights about deeper issues in the relationship — power, trust, etc. If these deep issues in the relationship are problematic, then these couples may be more likely to divorce,” study co-author Jeffrey Dew told the Huffington Post.

Simply put, couples that learn how to talk about their cash stand the best chance of survival. Here are three key questions research suggests every couple should ask.

“What does money mean to you?”

It may seem like a silly question, but can you answer it yourself? Money may seem like simple math – numbers divisible by the amount you earn versus the amount you spend – but what it represents to individuals is more intangible, mirroring their hopes and desires, fears and dreams.

“It’s possible for two people who grew up with similar household incomes to have vastly different attitudes towards money, depending on how their parents dealt with it, and whether they wish to emulate those practices or go in a completely different direction,” Justin Lavner, a clinical psychologist at UCLA, told NerdWallet.

Therapist Ulash Dunlap told NerdWallet most “conflicts emerge when you have two people with very different attitudes about money.” She says there are three common types of attitudes toward cash: 1) Those who view money as security – Worrying about the future, very focused on saving; 2) Those who view money as success and power – An enabler of social status; 3) Those who are very spontaneous in their spending decisions.

Financial adviser Richard Russo suggests this: Write out your personal money philosophy and share it with your partner. “The end result is a couple of sentences that spell out a sincere reflection of your ongoing relationship with money,” he writes in NerdWallet’s Advisor Voices.

“Here are a couple that people have shared with me:

I’ve been afraid of debt for a long time and feel compelled to pay off debts quickly. My parents taught me to not dig a hole I can’t climb out of, and I’ve always been that way.”

“I always make sure to have money in an emergency fund. I always try to save at least 5% of my salary in my 401(k).”

“These statements don’t need to be pretty. They need to be real and reflect an inner study about finances.”

“I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours”

Some things may be better not to know about your pasts, but this is not one of them: What is your credit rating?

Women tend to value high FICO credit rating scores more than men do—and are more likely to look askance at dates with less-than-stellar credit, according to a recent NerdWallet study.

There appears to be a generational divide when it comes to having the money talk. A NerdWallet survey of 544 never-married adults found that 13% of respondents ages 30 to 44 said they have never discussed money at all in their relationships. Yet 98% of people ages 25 to 29 said they have discussed money matters at some point in their relationship.

A frank discussion of your individual financial situations – income, saving, debt and investments – will help insure the stability of your relationship moving forward, experts say, and improve the odds of strategically working together for a sound future together, rather than reactive blow-outs when money mishaps come to a head.

“What will be yours, mine and ours?”

In a relationship, money can be about power, Lavner says. “Does making more money mean that you have a greater say in how to spend it? How can we be equal if you make all the decisions about money? But similarly, one could counter, how can we make joint decisions about money if you’re not contributing as much to the joint account?”

A spouse may not be contributing income, but being a primary caregiver affects the family’s bottom line. “The wife taking care of the kids may mean that the husband is able to take a kind of job he wouldn’t be able to without her doing full-time child care … (but) he feels like he has to bear the burden of sole support, which results in him spending even less time at home, which stresses the wife and their relationship further.”

How to divvy up the finances – what’s yours, mine and ours — can vary from couple-to-couple, and should depending on circumstances, experts say. What’s most important is that it’s transparent to both sides.

And a referee can help. “I advise pre-marital counseling for all couples. Open communication is very important, because your values don’t change. Being able to talk about what’s important to you, and using a therapist as a neutral 3rd party to mediate, can be very effective in getting simmering issues on the table,” Dunlap said.

Read More: Why Is Talking About Money So Hard?

Millennials Are Better At Having ‘The Talk’ Than Older Couples

Is Credit Counseling Right for Me?

Illustration by Brian Yee.