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Bedrooms & Bank Accounts
When it comes to sex and money, why does love sometimes feel like war?
As a psychologist, couples come to my office to talk about sex and money. When people are fighting about what's happening in their bedroom or bank account, they aren't just talking about intercourse or finances–they're struggling with something deeper. Power and control. Security. Significance. Autonomy and dependence. Trust. Communication.
Power & Control. Access to money and financial decision-making authority sets up a power dynamic that can reveal or create a sense of inequality in a relationship. In some cases, if a partner feels a lack of control in one aspect of life (or love), they may use spending to reclaim a temporary semblance of power to relieve some of their psychological angst.
Security. At the core of most people's relationship with money is the burning question, "Am I going to be okay?" We need money to survive. A lot can get stirred up when something is tied to our basic ability to stay alive, let alone thrive. When a basic foundation of financial safety is missing in a relationship, it can create high levels of stress and fear. When someone has misgivings about their partner's financial choices, unease can stem from a fear that certain actions could leave a couple in a precarious, vulnerable position (or make an existing one worse).
Autonomy & Dependence. Couples have different ideas about the best way to determine what's "yours, mine, and ours." Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits all solution. However a couple decides to divvy financial obligations and pool their resources, they will need to determine the extent to which they will retain any financial autonomy from one another. Some couples wouldn't dream of marrying their finances with another person, while others can't imagine having it any other way. When money is pooled, the contribution ratio can create a certain dynamic in a relationship. The key to staving off potential resentment, discomfort, or a sense of inadequacy that unequal breadwinning can stir is honest communication about the reactions that any given arrangement may give rise to.
Significance & Self-Worth. We often use money as a ruler. When it’s a shortcut to gauge success, it can, in turn, become a rubric for self-worth. Who contributes what to a household, in both material and immaterial ways, can create a cascade of feelings that are important to unpack. Couples move through different seasons of their lives together. They will rarely have identical salaries during same periods of time, particularly if children are part of the picture. It’s important for couples to explore together deeper issues connected to themes of work, earning, and providing. To accurately grok a person’s relationship with money we have to understand the meaning they attach to it.
Trust. Healthy relationships don't have financial secrets, even if couples elect to keep their money in separate accounts. When someone is compelled to conceal information from their partner, it's important to examine why. Often, it is the expectation of disapproval that (ultimately) drives one to commit financial infidelity. In these cases, a partner often wants to avoid conflict or judgment about a financial decision, so they skip conversations and hide what they're doing. A 2019 report from creditcards.com indicated that nineteen percent of live-in romantic partners in the U.S. had hidden a bank account or credit card from their partner in 2018. One in five said that financial infidelity would feel worse than learning their partner cheated on them physically. When someone covers up their choices, the truth often comes to light later. Bad news doesn't age well. Many times the act of omission feels worse than the original offense. Often, a betrayed partner wonders, "If you didn't share this with me, what else are you holding back?"
Communication. Sometimes people use financial behavior to attempt to send a message in lieu of having a direct conversation. Spending can sometimes be a passive-aggressive attempt to express anger or plead for attention. In some circumstances, spending is an attempt to fill the void of an unmet need. Money is a poor microphone. Things get lost in translation when we act out our feelings instead of having the courage to articulate them honestly. Don't just show, tell.
Money can be a vulnerable topic, especially when we move beyond surface-level math. The human experience of money is emotional and deeply entangled with our past. Financial stress is a top stressor for individuals and is an issue that frequently strains relationships, too. When two people enter a committed partnership, there is more at play than two people starting a life together–there is a merger of two financial families. People come into a relationship with entrenched financial attitudes, beliefs, and habits. It's common for some of these things to clash with their partner's financial predilections. If tensions are unaddressed, they can result in serious discord.
Most people are uncomfortable talking about money, even with the people they are closest to. Financial conversations can feel awkward. What is the "right time" to ask someone you're seeing what they earn or how much debt they've accrued? Most people couldn't tell you. There are no rules, and there is no guide. As a clinician, I believe that as a matter of preventative medicine, financial conversations need to happen earlier and more often in relationships than they typically do. Couples can benefit from working with a psychologist or financial advisor when discussing their finances feels too hard to tackle alone. It's a sound investment for a couple to have a professional help guide conversations about issues that will directly impact the success of their relationship.
Financial conflict between a couple is a signal and a symptom. It tells us something is wrong but doesn't specify what is amiss. To create a real cure, we need to understand the root cause. If we don't recognize what drives behavior and settle for slapping a bandaid on the surface, problems will persist. When couples have difficulties with their money, it's essential to approach with curiosity and examine the situation with empathy.
Our financial choices reveal what we value and are directly tied to what we need. When values are mismatched in a relationship, tensions arise. Humans don't want to feel alone, disconnected, or taken for granted. In our partnerships, we desire to be seen, celebrated, and cherished. When couples are having problems navigating money life together, is possible that there may be something awry in one of these areas.
Money is complex. Marriage is hard. We can't mix those things and expect a state of pure bliss. Healthy relationships take work, but take heart and don't forget: the best things in life are worth fighting for.
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