For richer, for poorer: Money and conflict in relationships

For richer, for poorer: Money and conflict in relationships
19 May 2013

We often hear it said that money is one of the most common sources of disagreements in a relationship. Indeed the scholarly research has indicated that money is THE central issue in relationship arguments, and often one of the main issues which leads to divorce.

Not only is conflict over money bad between partners it also impacts significantly on all family members. Conger’s family stress theory shows how conflict over money also increases the likelihood of emotional and behavioral problems in children.

Some argue that money is not the biggest factor in relationship conflicts, indicating that money may be among the most “socially acceptable” topics that people can admit arguing about. However money may certainly be the most frequent subject that causes tension in a relationship. Money decisions confront us on a daily basis, either through monthly bills arriving or family members’ multiple financial needs and requests.  

Troublesome traditions?

Is the ‘traditional way’ broken? Despite women’s advances in the work force and income equality, husbands and wives still conduct financial tasks along traditional lines where women manage the daily household finances and men handle the long-term planning. Yet I have frequently heard divorced couples complaining about this.

On the other hand friends who have told me of their healthy financial management strategies, such as joint goal setting and money management oversight, indicate they are less likely to argue over money.

Celebrate the differences

Social workers and divorce lawyers indicate that all conflict springs from differing expectations, competing goals, conflicting interests, or confusing communications. And nowhere, it seems, are these issues wide open than when it comes to personal finances.

In any relationship we will experience unhappiness, disappointment, dissatisfaction and unmet expectations – caused by our unique differences. How partners handle their differences is essential for physical and emotional well-being and clear communication is essential so each partner really understands these differences and yet, despite the differences, they are both aligned when it comes to money decisions.

Do not be controlled by money

The topic of money can be very emotional, and is closely related to self worth and personal vulnerabilities among marital partners that may trigger defensiveness. Even though couples may be willing to admit readily that money issues are problems, this does not mean that these issues are handled readily or effectively. Money conflicts are more likely to persist as important issues, be mishandled, and remain unresolved.

The fact is our relationship with money needs to be developed in order to control money rather than money controlling us. Use these steps to improve your love life and your relationship with money.

1. Ditch the gender roles in your financial relationship and your home.

2. Communication, what is said and what is not, plays a prime role in all relationships. One of the biggest lessons from Stephen Covey’s classic book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People based on his character study spanning literature across 150 years is: “If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. This principle is the key to effective interpersonal communication.”

3. Clearly agreed goals. George Bernard Shaw famously said: “Our lives are shaped not so much by our experience as by our expectations.” Unmet expectations lead to disappointment and despair and then trust breaks down. Ensure each parties expectations are understood and agreed – then hope for the best!

Adopting and sustaining these behaviour changes in your relationship can make your financial plan come to life – life is way too short to have conflict in a relationship, it is a big world outside the home where we cannot control the outcomes – seeking a peaceful loving relationship within the confines of your home starts with you.

How have you handled conflict with money in your relationship?


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Head of Behavioral Finance
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