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How to Tell When an Argument About Money Is Really About Something Else

When fights about finances aren’t easily resolved, it’s often because they’re about a deeper issue. We asked couples counselors and financial planners how to tell the difference between the two

For Love & Money is our weekly series exploring how we navigate one of the most intimate and rarely talked about aspects of our relationships: our finances.

When Rachel moved in with her ex, she noticed a few yellow flags almost immediately. At first, she agreed to split rent 50/50, even though he made more money. “I had never lived with a boyfriend before and didn’t want it to seem like he was taking care of me, so I didn’t bring it up,” she tells me. 

This wasn’t an issue in and of itself, but because he worked longer hours, Rachel ended up doing all of the decorating in their new place, not to mention grocery shopping, which she was rarely reimbursed for. When the 32-year-old would ask her boyfriend to pay her back directly, he would say he was too burned out from work to be bothered with budgeting conversations. “At a certain point, it wasn’t about the money,” she recalls. “He was just an asshole.”

There are plenty of reasons for couples to fight and break up, but money is almost always at the top of the list. As Rachel learned the hard way, arguments about money are also rarely only about finances; in many instances, they’re a proxy for more complex problems. According to couples therapist Jacob Brown, when couples continue to have the same kind of fights about money over and over again, it’s a good indication that they’re fighting about both a “named and unnamed conflict.” “The ‘unnamed conflict’ is typically a recurrent feeling in their relationship, something that’s too explosive or hurtful to deal with directly,” he explains.

One example Brown offers is someone fighting with their partner about irresponsible spending. That’s a very legitimate conflict, where one person might be upset that the other didn’t consult them before spending a lot of money, spending impulsively or spending frivolously. When these issues aren’t resolved quickly, it might be because the fight was actually about something bigger. “Perhaps one partner doesn’t feel heard, taken care of or feel safe, and the fight about money is a way for them to try and communicate these things,” Brown explains. “But it’s too scary to say that directly so it gets expressed through a fight about money.“

On the other hand, financial planner Sam Lewis argues that some disputes are genuinely about money. Or at least they start off that way, but if they’re not properly addressed, they can fester into deeper relationship issues that can’t be solved with a budgeting app or spreadsheet. “True arguments can be born from a money conflict but then grow into more emotional events when we extrapolate the disagreement into other realms and begin filling in the gaps of our understanding with our fears and biases,” Lewis says. Likewise, “because money can be so transactional, it becomes an easy example to wield when the fight eventually erupts.”

The biggest clue that a fight is legitimately about money is that it’s a relatively easy thing to solve. “People do have money issues that aren’t deeper, but usually if the issue is contentious, there’s some deeper charge or trigger,” Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, a couples counselor and practitioner of Imago relationship therapy, tells me. However, because the threat of a breakup or divorce is generally expensive for cohabitating couples, other serious issues in the relationship can inadvertently make couples insecure about money. “For many, the fear of separating or divorce and being left with nothing or losing hard-earned money or money brought into the relationship feels like a matter of survival, bringing out the worst in us,” Slatkin explains. 

Obviously, purely financial conflicts are inevitable in romantic relationships, but the real challenge is, how do couples keep them that way? To Lewis, it’s best to learn how to communicate about money early on, while keeping emotions out of these discussions as much as possible. “Establish compromise early, and have an equitably shared contribution to the future vision you dream of but still allow each partner to have total autonomy of some part of their income to do as they please,” Lewis says. In theory, this will make it harder to turn other relationship problems into money fights, because there won’t be much to fight about. 

From a more emotional perspective, Brown recommends couples sit down and take an inventory of the recurring fights they’re having about money. From there, start asking harder questions, like, “What other feelings come up when we fight about money?”, “In what way do you feel disappointed in our relationship?” and “How could I be a better partner?” 

“These are difficult questions to ask and to answer, and they can often lead to hurt feelings,” Brown warns. “But whether on your own or with a therapist, the key is to start having these conversations slowly. Work together with your partner to understand what’s happening and to get in touch with the feelings underneath the tension.”

Unlike financial conflicts, where the resolution is often concrete and objective, the goal of these discussions isn’t to fix anything, but to figure out what it is you’re fighting for in the first place.