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Stupid Money: Couples’ Financial Counseling Is a Thing

Just in case you needed another bill to argue over

Apart from deciding who washes the dirty dishes, there’s almost nothing that couples fight over more than money. And unfortunately, resolving money problems in a relationship can be a lot more complicated than negotiating who’s going to wield the dish sponge. These money issues are far more consequential, too, so given their importance and their intractability, what’s a couple to do?

Turns out, there’s such a thing as couples’ financial counseling, so alongside therapist Dr. Ryan Howes, we took a look at both how common it is, and how couples can fight less over money.

Cliches aside, how common is it really for couples to fight over money?

Howes says that it’s commonly understood that the three things that drive people to therapy are money, sex and kids. So, yeah, it’s in the Big Three.

Does it end a lot of relationships?

Howes estimates that among couples who end their relationship, money is the culprit about a third of the time. (The other two-thirds — since you’re no doubt curious — include a mix of infidelity/jealousy, domestic violence, drugs, alcohol or issues with friends and/or in-laws.) Money issues that can really destroy a relationship include debt, impulsive spending habits, lack of income or just general money stress.

It’s important to be clear that these issues can arise regardless of income level. “There are many happy couples in severe debt or who are filing for bankruptcy, and many miserable couples who are six figures in the black,” Howes points out.

Uhh… how’s that work?

Howes says it’s all about how you deal with it. As far as issues go, communication is the number one reason people visit his practice — and in terms of communication, talking about money is the most common problem. “In other words, finances alone aren’t necessarily the biggest stumbling block for couples, but how we talk about and handle them can be.”

So what are couples not talking about when it comes to money?

In many couples, one tends to save more while the other tends to spend more, Howes says. This is normal. But here’s the difference between happy and unhappy couples:

“The happiest, most highly functioning couples not only accept but appreciate this difference,” he says. “The spender appreciates the efforts of the saver to maintain a stable base, and the saver admires the spender’s ability to live in the moment and take advantage of surplus income. In unhappy couples, their partner becomes a threat to their objective, and they soon grow to resent them undermining their goals [goals being either saving money, or spending it]. They may even take their habits underground as a result, and save or spend large portions of their income without the other knowing.”

Howes continues that any therapist knows that trust is the backbone of a healthy relationship, so you can see where mistrust can torpedo a couple. “When people can appreciate personal differences and keep lines of communication open, the trust can remain intact,” he says.

It’s all about trust, then?

Yes, trust, but it’s also about aligning your goals. It’s a very American thing to equate financial worth with self-worth, and it manifests in various ways: We elevate and admire rich and famous people, while we view being in debt as a character flaw. Likewise, when you share money with your partner, you’re entrusting your own self-worth in them, which is what makes people guarded or suspicious with their own money, and thus, makes someone put their partner under a microscope or critique their saving/spending. At that point you’re treating the other person as an obstacle to your financial goals rather than as a partner.

When you think about it, it’s pretty reasonable to expect two people from different backgrounds and with different personalities to have differing approaches to money. The key is appreciating these differences, or at least acknowledging them, and together, figuring out a way to coexist and work toward shared goals — and then putting your trust in the other person.

“We generally function better when we accept one another and try to function within those parameters rather than trying to change one another to become more like us,” Howes says. “We encounter more resistance and conflict when we think we hold the only correct way to handle money and try to directly or indirectly impose those standards on our partner.”

What’s the practical advice, though? More transparency? Equitable sharing of wealth? What?

Howes suggests a far simpler solution. For a committed couple who’s either married, living together or sharing some level of finances, he recommends scheduling a weekly time to discuss money — perhaps a half-hour on Sunday night over a glass of wine. You can talk about the bills you’re paying, the checks you’re receiving and your future plans. He says this alone can be a relationship saver.

“Trust is something that comes with consistent behavior over time, so I don’t just tell people to trust, they’ll have to develop that in their own time,” he says. Talking regularly about money is the sort of consistent behavior that not only builds trust, it obviously involves communication with your partner about finances, which is where we started.

When a couple is serious enough to plan a future together, the relationship deserves a serious discussion about money: What each person owes, how much they spend, what their goals are and how you might reach them together. It goes without saying that it’s important to be rowing in the same direction toward the same goals, but Howes reminds people to “try to accept that your partner may view finances a bit differently than you, and appreciate the benefits this different viewpoint can bring.”

Say you struggle with all the above — what are the major downsides to fighting over money (beyond, y’know, divorce)?

One in four Americans have PTSD-like symptoms from financial stress, according to Forbes. But specifically among millennials, that figure jumps to 36 percent — more than one in three. Howes says this goes back to how we equate finances with our self-worth — people feel a great deal of shame in talking about financial stress, meaning it festers within and further isolates them. “If I could give one bit of advice to couples, it would be to talk about finances and how they make you feel,” Howes says. “You’ll probably find you’re not alone in your feelings.”

So how much of a thing is couples’ financial counseling, really?

Even though couples have sought therapy for financial stress for as long as therapy has existed, in the past decade, psychology has gotten serious about recognizing that finances can be a serious mental health issue. There are now organizations like the Financial Therapy Association that focus specifically on solutions to this for the public, and Howes says that in his experience, couples are seeking counseling through financial planners, budget coaches and financial therapists like him.

All of which is to say, if you’re in need of help figuring out the finances in your relationship, there are more resources now than ever before.