Communication is key to a healthy relationship, and that communication needs to include talking about money.
Sure, ‘money doesn’t buy happiness’ and ‘all you need is love’, but if couples don’t talk about money it can become a source of conflict.
In some cases the conflict can be massive. You don’t want to only find out after you’ve married someone that they’re up to their neck in debt and they’ve been lying to you about their financial status all this time.
Even at the more mundane end of the scale, having a different financial attitude to your partner can also cause its fair share of squabbles.
But still, having that first conversation about money can be intimidating.
You don’t want to seem like you’re being a golddigger, or that you’re bragging about how much you earn. But it’s only fair that you both know what you’re getting into.
Why is money so hard to talk about?
Broaching the issue of money within a relationship can be tricky.
Not only does it mean potentially admitting to being richer or poorer than your partner, there’s also the fear that you’re moving forwards too fast. Talking about money can be a sign of commitment – a sign that one day you intend their money to be your money, and vice versa.
‘Money represents individual freedom,’ says Marian O’Connor, a relationship and psychosexual therapist and head of professional development at Tavistock Relationships.
‘So when you try to talk about it with your partner you can almost feel like you’re saying you can’t be an individual anymore, you just have to be an ‘us’.’
While maintaining individuality in the early stages of a relationship is fine, it can become a problem later on, if one half of the couple spends more than the other half.
‘It can feel like the partner who’s doing the spending isn’t thinking about the couple,’ Marian explains.
How soon should couples talk about it?
Without having a direct conversation about money, you can get a good sense of a person’s attitude towards it very early on while dating.
Relate counsellor and senior practicing consultant Rachel Davies tells us that if you’ve been dating for a few weeks and your partner is already talking about taking an expensive mini-break that you can’t afford, or taking you to expensive restaurants, it’s a good time to talk about the issue.
‘Not necessarily about what you earn,’ Rachel says, ‘but some of the stuff about attitudes towards money and what you feel would be extravagant and what you feel you can manage and things like that.
‘Our advice at Relate is always to start talking about these things early on, because it stops that taboo [of talking about money] from building up.’
If there is a financial imbalance in the relationship, with one partner earning more, then a compromise has to be reached early on, otherwise the lesser-earning half of the couple could end up putting themselves in debt in an effort to keep up.
‘People have to be aware that they earn different money,’ Marian says, ‘and if someone earns more than the other person, what’s wrong with them paying more?’
Having a financial imbalance can cause some problems – the higher-earning person may feel under pressure to provide, and the lower-earning person may feel that they are being patronised – but so long as people understand and respect their partner’s financial status, things will be fine.
However, ‘when people laugh at the other person’s lifestyle because it’s poorer or richer, that really doesn’t bode well for a relationship,’ Marian says.
What does money mean?
Depending on your background, you may have a completely different attitude towards money than your partner.
‘It might be that in the first few months of a relationship when you’re living apart that’s not really felt like an issue,’ says Rachel from Relate.
‘It might not be until you open a joint bank account or get your first mortgage or something like that that you start to realise that actually that can be a day to day battle for people if they’ve got different approaches to money.’
Our approach to money generally goes back to our family history.
‘For some people money is about security and ‘I’m going to be safe and I’m never going to be on the street’,’ Rachel explains.
‘That might have roots in their history, if their parents had always struggled with money.
‘So for them money is not about buying material possessions, it’s about security.
‘For other people it’s more about status, it’s more about success… it is about buying things and having the nice house and the nice car.
‘It’s not to judge that, it’s to say you can have different attitudes that you learnt growing up.’
Marian from Tavistock agrees. She says that attitudes towards money ‘can cause arguments that aren’t really about the present day, but are more about anxiety about the past.
‘So it is quite important to be able to say why you are particularly anxious about spending money that you’ve actually got to spend, and what meaning it has to you.’
How to talk about the big problems
If you think your partner is hiding debt, over-spending or gambling from you – or you’ve been hiding them from your partner and are unsure of how to come clean – then transparency is vital.
‘This isn’t a conversation to have for the first time when it’s 10 o’clock at night when you’re both about to go to bed,’ says Rachel Davies.
‘When you’re actually having the conversation I think it’s important to give as much of the context of something as possible.
‘So rather than saying ‘I’ve got this really big credit card bill and I don’t know what to do about it’, you should say ‘this is why this happened, this is how I need your help’, and really appealing to your partner to be supportive and helpful.
‘Hopefully you’re in a relationship because you love each other, and that can help you to overcome whatever difficulties you face as an individual…
‘Even if they can’t financially help, they can provide emotional support.’
How to keep things open
The longer a relationship goes on, the more financial ties you have to each other.
Relate recommend that couples with a lot of shared finances and/or children should have regular discussions about their household finances.
But getting things off to a good and transparent start will make all the difference.
‘Being able to ask your partner what they earn, and being free to say it without feeling either ashamed because you earn little, or lying because you think the partner will try and get something from you, shows a rather open-heartedness,’ says Marian from Tavistock Relationships.
So let’s keep things open, and start talking cold hard cash with our loved ones.
Relate offers counselling services for every type of relationship nationwide.
Tavistock Relationships is a provider of counselling and psychotherapy.