Money, Couples and Conflict: Understanding Your Spouse’s Financial Upbringing Can Help Your Marriage Grow by Susan Gregory Thomas, Goal Investor
Frequent fights about money have been shown to be a top predictor of divorce, and because they can be so poisonous, most therapists encourage yanking financial conflicts up by their roots. That may mean digging deep into the past.
Emotions tend to run high when discussing money. “Talking about dollars and cents only seems rational, but you find out pretty quickly that some aspect of money almost always sets off someone’s emotional landmines,” says Brooklyn-based therapist Theresa Sturley, L.S.W., who often works with couples. “Most often, these are connected to early experiences, cultural influences, or family of origin beliefs.”
Because we’re likely to have formed our attitudes, hopes, and fears about money while growing up, our adult interactions around personal finances almost certainly involve the unpacking of emotional baggage—or, in some cases, flinging it around. What makes matters worse is that we tend to be oblivious to those deep-seated feelings, reactive instinctively without really knowing why.
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Therapists have found that couples may, for example, unwittingly re-play tensions from the separate family dramas of their youths, assigning themselves the character of the parent with whom they were more sympathetic in childhood, while casting their unwitting spouse in the opposing role.
Psychotherapist Olivia Mellan, long-time specialist in resolving money conflicts, observed some 15 years ago that couples overwhelmingly play polarizing roles when it comes to personal finance. Hoarders, for example, often mate with over-spenders. But polarizing persists even when both spouses begin with more or less the same money tendencies.
“Two spenders who come together will fight each other for the super-spender role,” Mellan noted in an essay. “[T]he other, as a defense, will learn to hoard because someone has to set limits.” In other words, in relationships that include some extreme behaviors, couples tend to establish polar positions—with one spouse at each end of the continuum. With that kind of opposition built-in, it’s no wonder marital money fights are so explosive.
Even without the intervention of a therapist, there are ways to untangle the jumbled feelings you and your spouse may have around money.
“It always helps to understand how we came to have certain beliefs about money, think about how our parents handled money and how that impacted us—and to be able to talk about this without shame,” says Sturley. 
Adds Marcia Noa, managing partner of Goal Investor, “When it comes to money, couples sometimes forget they’re on the same side. But thoughtful conversations—why we feel how we feel and do what we do—can diffuse the tension.”
Here are some questions—collected from both Sturley and Noa—that can help couples uncover those harmful emotional landmines:
- What was your family’s money management style?
- Was money, and your family’s way of managing it, openly discussed or kept quiet?
- Did your parents fight about money as you were growing up?
- Did your parents have traditional roles in terms of who was the breadwinner? How did that backdrop affect your expectations as an adult? Have they changed over time or become more entrenched?
- Who made the financial decisions? Did that arrangement work well?
- Were your parents financially responsible, and what impact did that have on you?
- Were there any traumatic events in your childhood that involved money? For example, did one or both of your parents lose a job or a home; have a gambling or spending problem; require government assistance; use money to control, intimidate, or humiliate? How did these experiences shape you?
- What is your financial style? How has that affected past relationships?
- What are your expectations for the future regarding money, your goals, your dreams?
This questionnaire might seem rigorous, but the pay-offs are deep. “I find that once couples understand one another at these deep levels, rather than being determined to change the other person, then compassion generally follows,” says Sturley. And with a base of empathy, there is little a couple can’t work out.
 Susan Gregory Thomas’ interview with Sturley
 Susan Gregory Thomas’ interview with Sturley
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