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Interview with Justin Lavner: Why is talking about money so hard?

Oct. 15, 2012
Personal Finance
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As we’re discovering from Matt and the other contestants, money is a hard thing to talk about. We decided to sit down with Justin Lavner, a Ph.D. Candidate in Clinical Psychology at UCLA, whose research focuses on couple and family relationships.  His research has been funded by the National Science Foundation and published in the Journal of Family Psychology, the Journal of Marriage and Family, Behavior Therapy, and the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.  He also works as a therapist for couples and families.

Q: What does the academic literature tell us about money as a topic for conflict in relationships? I’ve often heard that money is a bigger source of breakups than adultery. 

Justin Lavner: Money is definitely one of the top contenders for conflicts that consume marital life. A recent study by Lauren Papp shows that while couples argue about children most frequently, conflicts about money are longer, more recurrent, and have greater long-term significance than other topics. Money is also the topic most likely to be set aside for later discussion, indicating the lack of resolution.

Q: So, why is this? What makes money so particularly difficult to talk about?

JL: We can only speculate, but I would suggest a number of reasons:

1. Money is very tangible. It touches almost all aspects of our lives, and forces choices daily, “Can we really afford to go out with our friends?” “Do you really need that 60″ high-definition TV?”.

2. Our attitudes about money are impacted by how we were raised. 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.

3. Money is/can be power. 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?

4. Money is hard to talk about – and we don’t get a lot of training on how to do it. For example, let’s take a hypothetical traditional family, with the husband working, and wife at home with kids. 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 this means she isn’t contributing income. So 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.

5. Problems related to money can escalate quickly. Let’s say you have a mortgage, and you lose your job, thus falling behind on your loan payments, causing the bank to foreclose, and forcing you out of your home. Given the structure of financial problems, and it’s pervasiveness, an issue in your finances can rapidly impact multiple parts of your life.

Q: Money is complex, and touches and drives so many decisions that it can be hard to talk about in isolation, without dragging in lots of other baggage. Do you have any advice for our contestants on how to talk productively with their significant others about money? 

JL: 1. Be willing to talk. Be explicit about what you want – don’t just let things go because you’re dreading the conflict. Letting things go doesn’t make them go away. 

Partner 1: It’s important to me to have social time – I want to go out at least twice a month with our friends.

Partner 2: It’s important to me to save $1,000/month for our future down payment

2. Reflect on where your values about money come from. Translate those values to your significant other.

Partner 1: I saw my father work himself to death – he never had time to enjoy any of the money he was making

Partner 2: My family was never able to save enough or plan ahead. I don’t want that instability in my own life.

3. Listen. Where can both your needs be met in a way that works with the reality of your situation?

Partner 1: How about we go out once a month, and save $700 towards our down payment?

Q: Any final words of advice? 

JL: If there are problems at the beginning, they have to be dealt with. They don’t just go away.

Source: Papp, L.M., Cummings, E.M., & Goeke-Morey, M.C. (2009). For richer, for poorer: Money as a topic of marital conflict in the home.  Family Relations, 58, 91-103.