THE BLOG
11/21/2011 10:04 am ET Updated Jan 21, 2012

Detroiters: Don't Let Money Woes Ruin Your Relationship

Unemployment and underemployment, foreclosure, loss of investments, and other financial distress can lead to negative health effects -- both physical and emotional. And, as the holidays approach, Detroit families might be feeling plenty of financial strain and pressure. With the economy putting a crimp in everyone's budget, are you and your partner constantly disagreeing about money? Is there a third party driving a wedge between you and your partner, and her name is "debt"? Is money a stressful topic in your relationship right now?

Well, you are not alone. My research shows that seven out of 10 couples report that money causes tension in their relationship. That may be why so many couples avoid the topic entirely -- particularly in the early stages of a relationship. Studies show that financial disagreements are often the most distressing for couples. Money-related conflicts are more intense, last longer, are more likely to persist unresolved, and have greater implications to the relationship than other conflict topics.

So how do you and your partner begin coping with your money issues without damaging what otherwise may be a deeply fulfilling relationship? Here are some strategies that may help.

Talk money every quarter.
When couples don't talk openly about money, it can become a sensitive subject and lead to conflict. As a result, they learn to avoid it. The problem is, that big old elephant in the room keeps taking up more and more space when you don't acknowledge it. But you can diffuse the tension and take the angst out of your money woes simply by bringing them out into the open. When you talk about money, the less potent and volatile the conversation is likely to be. I recommend that you have a money talk at least once every quarter, or every three months. This will keep things on track and uncover potential problems before they become too big.

Stay alert to baggage disguised as finances.
Too often, disagreements about finances have little to do with the money itself and more to do with other emotionally charged issues: control, security, self-esteem, and even love! Money is a tangible part of a relationship, so it is easy to use it as a vehicle for emotional baggage. Think carefully as you discuss money issues with your partner to make sure there isn't a larger problem at the core. Are you more upset that he bought season tickets to the Tigers, or that he hid the purchase from you? Are you really angry that she spends so much on food, or is it really that your unemployment is running out next month? When you feel a lot of emotion around a financial topic, be circumspect before discussing it and ask yourself: "Is this really about money?" Ask yourself how your parents dealt with money, what it meant to you when you were growing up, and how you dealt with it in past relationships. If you've always been independent, for example, it may be hard for you to be "taken care of" financially.

Keep it direct and specific.
When you sit down with your partner to have a "money talk," start with simple, direct questions that are mostly devoid of emotion. "What are we spending?" "What are we saving?" "Do we have any big expenses coming up?" "Are there some areas where we're wasting money and can cut back?" When you go into the talk with an agenda or an accusation, it's more likely to take on a toxic tone or devolve into an argument. If talking money is new or difficult for you, start with this "lite" approach the first quarter: simple, direct questions that are specific and emotionally neutral.

Next quarter, graduate to the "bigger" talk.
Besides discussing the everyday nitty-gritty of household finances, it's also important to learn about each other's spending habits, attitudes about money, and money management skills. These are topics that, when left undiscussed, can cause problems in relationships. Some questions might include: "What are your short- and long-term money goals?" "What do you think is the right amount of debt?" "What seems fair to you in terms of how we each spend or share our money?" You might also bring up different money scenarios and how each of you might address or resolve these (e.g., overdrawn checking account, fired from a job, credit card use, the pros and cons of joint or separate checking accounts). If you have concerns about your partner's spending habits, financial decisions, or your role in managing money, make sure you express such thoughts during this talk as well.

Be an equal-partner team.
It is not unusual for one partner to play the primary role in managing the finances, but it is vital that both partners be involved and share in the responsibility. For instance, be certain you can clearly articulate your partnership's assets and debts and locate the necessary back-up documentation. Also, studies show that couples have less conflict when they share (or consult one another) in all big financial decisions. Big financial decisions should not be made only by the partner bringing home the most money. As a couple, you're also a financial team.

Agree on some rules.
As any partnership, agree on some spending rules or limits. Couples can pick from a number of possibilities. For instance, you can agree on a threshold amount (like $100, $200) that you can spend without needing to report or consult one another. Above that, you need to discuss it before the item is purchased. Keeping money secrets from a partner is a type of betrayal, so that's why I stress the importance of financial transparency. For some couples, the best way to stay financially "honest" is to stick to a budget, which includes tracking the couple's spending on a weekly or monthly basis. Discuss these options with your partner.

Respect your differences.
Studies show that when it comes to money, men and women often have different views. Women see money as a sign of security and stability. They like to save for emergencies, and when financial problems arise, they become very concerned and worried. Men take more risks with money and see money issues as a threat to their self- esteem and confidence. Try to understand your partner's perspective. Compromise is often essential. It is okay to disagree on some issues, but don't let them get in the way of your overall goals as a couple.

Don't let money come between you.
Money isn't an easy topic to discuss, but it still needs to be talked about. Bear in mind that not all people are comfortable talking about money right away in a relationship. Be patient but persistent, and give it time. If you bring up the topic several times with a long-term partner and he or she still gets defensive, this may be a "red flag" that something more serious is going on. Follow the above strategies, but if you can't seem to talk about money without one or both of you getting upset, seek out a financial counselor or couple's therapist to help you sort through your financial issues.