Couples can disagree about many things, but when the topic of money is involved, the disagreements can be painful and unpleasant. For one of the couples on the TV show “Big Little Lies,” for instance, the bankruptcy caused by a profligate partner created a vast gap between them that they seem unable to overcome. Recriminations, accusations, and out-and-out hatred now characterize what used to be a happy—and wealthy—marriage.
If you and your partner find yourselves on the other side of your own financial disputes, you know how much these disagreements can erode your own relationship satisfaction. According to new research by Kansas State University’s Sonya Britt-Lutter and colleagues (2019), “Financial stress, communication, and frequency of financial disagreements are all factors contributing to reduced relationship satisfaction and increased likelihood of divorce” (p. 330). Communication is the key to all good relationships but, as the Kansas State University researchers point out, communicating about money is particularly challenging. “Of the sources of couple conflict, money consistently ranks at the top of the list” (p. 331). Fortunately, there are ways to neutralize this emotion-laden topic, as these researchers discovered.
Britt-Lutter and her colleagues used a well-accepted model in the stress and coping literature to examine couple disagreements about money that emphasizes the role of appraisal (or perception) in leading to feelings of being overwhelmed by life’s difficulties. According to this model, people become stressed when they perceive that the threat presented by a situation overwhelms their abilities to cope. When people feel stressed, their bodies become flooded with negative emotions, and their decisions become made based on “emotions, habits, and instincts” (p. 331). Fight or flight sets in—and you either attack your partner or you flee from the situation entirely without getting anything resolved.
Using this cognitive appraisal model as their starting point, the Kansas State University researchers developed a 5-stage couples curriculum designed to “guide couples through the process of the multiple dimensions of money,” focusing primarily on communication and stress (p. 334). Their sample included 13 couples who agreed to be part of this 5-week training program. Two were same-sex and the remainder were mixed-gender couples; they ranged from 26 to 51 years old, and on average were married 11 years. Although 12 percent of the sample had incomes of $125,000 to $149,000, most earned less than $75,000. The training outcomes consisted of measures of financial and relationship stress as well as ratings of personal happiness obtained immediately after the training and 3 months later.
Moving on now to the 5 steps Britt-Lutter et al. implemented in their training program, each contains an important strategy you can use to make your talks about finances be less agonizing:
Step 1: Practice active listening.
Using statements such as “I feel,” you avoid putting your partner on the defensive. Talk over your financial hot buttons with your partner and see if you can switch from attack mode to understanding mode.
Step 2: Understand the role of stress in communication.
Reflect on the times that you and your partner have experienced stress in your lives together, including disagreements over finances, and compare the ways that each of you handles that stress. From the cognitive appraisal model perspective, adaptive coping methods are the key to reducing stress, so explore what you and your partner do that allow you to alleviate those painful feelings.
Step 3: Think about your own values regarding money.
In this step, you can take some unconventional steps to decide why you and your partner have such different views about money. Are you a cheapskate while your partner is a spendthrift? Do you equally care about wealth as a life goal? In the third week of the Kansas State training program, couples were asked to reflect on their earliest memories of money and then, literally, sculpt them with Play-doh. Your sculpture might look like a piggy bank (suggesting you value saving), but your partners like a fancy car (suggesting money should be spent on luxuries).
Then, partners drew “financial genograms” to represent the characteristics of family members going back at least two generations. Did your parents experience financial insecurity, and that’s what’s driving your own fears about overspending? Did your partner have parents who shopped at all the finest stores, regardless of cost? This step is perhaps the most important because it helps you understand how you enter into financial discussions based on your history and that of your parents (and perhaps even your grandparents).
Step 4: Imagine your own “financial legacy.”
What do you intend to leave behind—both for your own retirement and for the security of your children and grandchildren? Do you become anxious when you think about your future financial security? The group facilitator in the study led couples through a discussion of their emotions associated with thinking about their credit scores (such as fear or confidence), and the steps they might go through when they start retirement planning. You might not think of discussions about your IRA or pension as being particularly enthralling or even as having romantic connotations. However, once these ideas are out there, it should be clear that they can matter as much as your decisions about where to go on your next date night.
Step 5: Plan your budget.
From companies to governments to volunteer organizations, budgets are at the backbone of all future planning. You may be involved in budgeting decisions at work, or if not, you’re certainly affected by them. Why not bring this set of decisions into your own discussions at home? If you’ve stayed away from budget planning with your partner because the topic is too emotionally-charged, the Kansas State financial curriculum suggests it’s time to get out the pencil or spreadsheet and begin comparing revenues with expenses. The advantage of working on a budget, the researchers maintain, is that it forces a set of behavioral decisions that the two of you need to make. Those abstract family values about money that you inherited now become translated into steps that you and your partner can agree on moving forward in your own financial lives.
The outcome measures of financial stress are ones you can also apply at home with your partner. Using a scale of 1 to 100, rate (1) How much stress do you experience because of your financial situation? and (2) How much stress does your financial situation cause your relationship?
Although the sample was a relatively small one, this investigation of the benefits of a financial curriculum provided encouraging results both immediately after and three months following the end of the training. Couples who began the study with financial stress scores of 44 on that 1 to 100 scale ended the study with scores close to 36. Their relationship stress scores decreased by a comparable amount, from 38 to 30. Measures assessing happiness with finances, happiness with communication, and happiness with household responsibilities increased over the course of the study, but had bounced back down by the three month follow-up. Still, the stress scores remained low.
With its pre-post-only design, the Britt-Letter investigation clearly did not meet the requirements of an experiment, although the three month follow-up added at least a longer-term dimension than might otherwise be found in a study of this nature. The sample size was small, and relatively homogeneous in terms of demographics (i.e. the couples all were white). Nevertheless, the novel approach represented by the curriculum is one that should provide an useful springboard for future and better-controlled studies.
To sum up, money conversations don't have to create relationship stress. Taking these steps, one at a time, can help you and your partner build stronger bonds to get you through those difficult conversations.
Britt-Lutter, S., Haselwood, C., & Koochel, E. (2019). Love and money: Reducing stress and improving couple happiness. Marriage & Family Review, 55(4), 330–345. doi:10.1080/01494929.2018.1469568