11/06/2013 04:34 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

What We Really Fight About When We Fight About Money

It's not surprising that the number one issue that most couples fight about is money. Of course, it's not really money that is activating the intense emotional reactions that fuel these conflicts. It's all of the things that money represents that ignites these strong emotions. Among other things, money symbolizes power, security, worth, trust, love and even our very survival. It's no wonder that the possible or actual loss of money can activate some of our deepest fears and prompt us to act defensively as well as offensively. These reactions inevitably generate similar responses on the part of our partner. We feel like we are in a life-threatening situation that requires extreme measures to insure that our survival will be maintained.

Given our perception of the stakes, conversations about money are inevitably emotionally loaded and for many couples, those conversations easily burst into flames. Even in a healthy economy, feelings about money tend to be intense. In a weak economy, financial anxiety rises to an even higher pitch, often leading to addictive behaviors, depression, insomnia and abusive interactions. When a relationship is unstable to begin with, extreme financial stress can push a couple over the edge.

The intensity of money-related fears can prompt a variety of responses. One possible response is to deny the conflict altogether and seek to adopt the path of avoidance. We don't want to think about it, talk about it or deal with it and so we don't. It's not until the pressure forces us to confront our feelings, and those of our partner that we are forced to abandon the path of avoidance. We reach a point where we can no longer not deal with it anymore. When the strategy of avoidance no longer works, the same fears about security often prompt conflict. The classic argument stems from the stylistic differences between the spender and the saver. It's not uncommon for one partner to be more inclined to spend freely and the other to be a saver. While in theory, this difference can produce a necessary balance in the relationship, in practice it can turn into a nightmarish, ongoing conflict. When these differing points of view become too polarized, the clash of differences can become painfully destructive.

We enter into relationships with the hope of experiencing a happier, more fulfilled life. Much to our surprise, we often discover that committed partnerships bring us unanticipated difficulties as well as fulfillment. These expectations set us up for disappointment and resentment when they are unmet. The willingness of each partner to assume responsibility for their contribution to the situation is what allows for a higher degree of goodwill, trust and vulnerability to be present in the relationship.

Until the couple is able to move to this level of responsibility, they remain stuck in the fight or flight system, alternating between defensiveness and aggressive hostility. Some examples of what fuels these conflicts include:

  • Feelings of shame over not making what one considers an adequate amount of income.
  • Embarrassment about poor money management.
  • Not having sufficiently saved for a rainy day.
  • Painful memories from childhood about being poor and hungry.
  • Fears about becoming destitute and homeless.

When fears (irrational and rational) that are related to money are withheld, they tend to intensify the beliefs and emotions that underlie them. The cure for such disturbances has to do with the willingness to acknowledge them outwardly and have them be accepted without judgment by a trustworthy, recipient whose perspective is undistorted and compassionate.

Behaviors that rob couples of harmony and trust include:
  • Dishonesty about earnings or debt.
  • Concealing secret accounts and investments.
  • Making purchases behind the other's back.
For many couples, underlying beliefs can be subtle and difficult to recognize. Some examples of such beliefs include:
  • Men are better equipped to handle money than women (or vice-versa).
  • Money is hard to come by.
  • It's a dog-eat-dog world.
  • Zero-sum thinking (If I have more, then others will have less).
  • Money can buy you happiness.

Identifying and acknowledging concerns about money is an important step in the process of detaching from these beliefs and adopting a more workable partnership. Because the subject of money can be so highly charged, it is a formidable challenge to stay in dialogue with a partner in a respectful responsible way. It requires courage to openly engage in a subject that can so easily trigger tender feelings. It requires tolerance to resist the temptation to blame oneself or others for problems related to money. And it requires patience to stay in dialogue around the issues for as long as it takes to establish mutually acceptable agreements about how money will be handled. For some couples, it may require a great many conversations over time to set policies in place that are mutually satisfying.

As both partners become increasingly able to respect each other's perspective, the relationship grows in acceptance, understanding, and compassion. These conversations open new possibilities that enable couples to not only live in greater harmony with each other but to design policies that enhance well being and a more stress-free life together. Examples include:
  • Simplifying and cutting back to live below their means,
  • Co-creating action plans that are designed to get out and stay out of debt
  • Working together to utilize each other's strengths and talents rather than trying to coerce each other into complying with their preferred ways of doing things.

When reactive patterns are neutralized through practice and mutual respect, couples can experience true financial intimacy. When there is a willingness to confront these challenges and the need for safety, security, and true partnership is fulfilled, relationships can transform. It's also noteworthy that according to several studies, happy, cooperative couples also make more money. But it's not the money that makes them happier. It's the connection that they create that enables them to be transparent, living with an open heart, and deepening love on an ongoing basis. That's the big win.

For more by Linda Bloom LCSW and Charlie Bloom MSW, click here.

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