Talking about money is not particularly sexy—unless you're a character in a movie rolling around on stacks of bills. Nevertheless, couples who don't talk about money in an honest and respectful way often set themselves up for disaster: Financial troubles and differences are one of the most common conflicts and can ruin relationships.
Are you developing poor financial practices that could spell doom later on? Watch for these five common patterns, and learn how to keep them from becoming problems in your relationship:
1. Not realizing your own baggage.
We often assume that our way of dealing with money is correct, and everyone else's are wrong. That's because our money styles become so ingrained and natural to us that we see them as the only way to be, and not as the fluky results of our own complicated histories. Do you go on spending sprees when you're upset? Do you make fun of anyone who buys an extended warranty? Do you always buy name brands? Or perhaps you insist on using a spreadsheet for even the most minuscule expenditures. We all have money quirks, but the odds of our quirks being aligned with our partners' quirks are very slim. Take a step back and acknowledge the differences that you and your partner have and—even more important—understand the ways that your quirks may be related to your upbringing and difficult for someone else to live with. Only then can you work out a healthier method of dealing with them.
2. Thinking secrets aren't a big deal.
You bought more clothes than you said you would, and are now hiding them from your partner. Or you dipped into joint savings account, without telling your partner, to pay off what you lost on a bad investment. In these cases, the erosion of trust that comes from the secrecy is potentially more damaging than the original act. Don't get caught in the slippery slope of financial infidelity. If you think it's not a big deal to lie about whether something was on sale or not, that may be true—but a more important question is, why do you have to lie in the first place? If you and your partner have agreed to keep your finances completely separate, that's one thing. But it's hard to have a long-term relationship without money being intertwined on some level, so your joint financial goals need to align. The more habitually you do your own thing and try to cover it up after the fact, the more you undermine whatever joint vision you are working toward as a team.
3. Thinking that compromise can't happen.
It's true that compromise doesn't always work perfectly with money issues. You can't, for instance, buy just half of a new car. But many times we view the gaps in our money styles as unable to be bridged at all, which can eradicate any chance or hope of working toward a mutually agreeable solution. Avoid thinking in black-or-white terms such as, "He's a spender. I'm a saver" or "We'll never see eye to eye on money matters because we're wired so differently." This thinking can blind you to the possibilities of compromise, which often exist in the gray areas you ignore with such pronouncements. Instead, keep the possibility of collaboration and compromise close at hand by starting discussions that search for compromise through willingness and creative thinking.
4. Viewing money behaviors as character traits rather than habits.
We often believe that our money behaviors are completely enmeshed with character traits. For better or for worse, we view a person's style with spending and saving as supremely telling of their character. If your partner spends more than the agreed-upon budget for the month, do you see it as a specific problem to be solved, or do you bemoan the fact that he or she is lazy, selfish, or careless? If your partner needles you about a purchase even when you both agreed it was OK, do you view it as something that needs to be discussed, or as an indication that they are a hypocrite who always goes back on their word? Over-personalizing money styles can make the problem much bigger. When you have a financial issue to discuss, keep it as specific as possible. Try to resist the temptation to turn it into a bigger issue about character, which will only make you more upset and put your partner more on the defensive.
Even in the strongest partnerships where all money is shared, jealousy about money can begin to erode the relationship. Maybe you secretly resent how easily your partner got that high-paying job while you struggle to land freelance gigs. Maybe you've always been so mired in student debt that you've frugally taken your lunch to work for eight years, while your partner orders takeout meals with abandon. Or maybe you're simply envious of how your partner doesn't seem to spend any time worrying about money or crunching numbers, whereas it takes up an enormous amount of your mental energy. Ironically, being so scared that financial envy and jealousy will ruin your relationship may actually help it to do so—you must acknowledge your feelings so that they don't end up turning into resentment. The more you try to pretend that everything is OK, the less likely you are to initiate a real and honest discussion, which is the only way you can work toward solving the problem that's causing the jealousy in the first place.
More of Andrea Bonior's articles on relationships:
Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and speaker who serves on the faculty of Georgetown University. She is the author of Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World and The Friendship Fix, and her mental health advice column Baggage Check has appeared in the Washington Post Express for more nearly twelve years. She speaks to audiences large and small about relationships, work-life balance, and motivation, and is a television commentator on mental health issues. Send your mental health questions to the column at email@example.com (link sends email), and don't miss the discussion on Facebook.