Money: what’s your emotional relationship with it?

16 June 2020

Some people are very careful about money – unwilling to spend on anything unless they absolutely have to and squirrelling away the rest.

Some people love to spend money, and will happily spend every last penny – even when they know they should slow down and keep some in reserve.

Most of us are somewhere in the middle, occasionally spending lots or treating ourselves, sometimes saving.

How do we develop these different relationships with money? The answer is often traced back to our upbringing. We develop our ideas around money from the people we spend time with growing up.

Sometimes, that can mean we emulate them. If parents were careful with money, we may take that as a lesson and do likewise. But, it can also mean we do the opposite: sometimes people try to provide their children with what they never had themselves. So someone who grew up with strict, thrifty parents might lavish their own children with gifts.

How can this be a challenge in our relationships?

One obvious problem arises when partners have contrasting emotional relationships to money. If one wants to spend while the other wants to save, the room for conflict is laid bare.

In some relationships, the difference is quite nuanced. Sometimes it isn’t as simple as spend or save (or save and spend). One partner might be happy spending, but only on big-ticket items like holidays, cars or furniture, whereas the other might prefer spending regular, moderate amounts on smaller things, like meals out or presents. On the other hand, both might be savers, but enjoy saving for different things – one might have retirement in mind, whereas the other might want to spend it all on a house.

It can be particularly challenging with polarised attitudes towards money – where one person spends so much that they’re at risk of running out of money, or the other isn’t willing to spend on anything other than the most essential stuff, and can be difficult or ill-tempered when asked to do otherwise.

Understanding emotional relationships with money

On a deeper level, we all have our own emotional relationship with money as individuals, yet are often wholly unaware of it and of our ability to (mis-)use this as ‘emotional currency’ within our relationships. We project meaning on to money, effectively ‘loading’ it with feelings around security, control and independence.

For example, conflict can arise if one partner values their independence highly and channels this through their need for financial freedom, whereas the other partner wants to pool resources, and feels more comfortable feeling financially co-dependent or even dependent. Some people need to feel in control of every single transaction, whereas their partner may be completely disinterested in this level of detail.

Similarly, relational significance can come into play where we ‘act’ out roles, emulating parent-child dynamics with one as ‘provider’ and the other ‘provided for’.

Where debt is an issue, problems arise from ‘hidden debt’ if partners have different approaches to managing money and different values around money. Hiding debt from a partner can have similar effects on a relationship as those of an affair, because issues of trust and betrayal surface.

Money can be a highly emotive subject: it speaks to our ability to survive, our ability to live a stable life and our ability to plan long term. Conflict about money can tap into different values and emotional approaches – and end up being more than just about a lack of money.

How can you approach this challenge?

Having an understanding of your own and your partner’s emotional relationship with money may help. Sometimes you can empathise with each other’s feelings.

By talking honestly about how you feel about money, what money means to you and taking the time to examine together where these feelings might come from… you can begin to understand one another’s perspective. From there, you may be able to move towards decisions that take both perspectives into account.

Begin by sitting down at a time when you’re both feeling ready to talk (and there are no distractions) and making an honest effort to understand each other without judgement.

In time you may find you’re able to approach the practical issues – how to budget together, which items to prioritise, access to any joint account and so on – in a much calmer manner, exploring each other’s feelings about money.

How we can help

Coming in for counselling may help start your conversation about money. Your counsellor will not take sides or tell you what to do – he or she will listen and try to help you gain a deeper insight into your behaviours and a better understanding of each other’s perspectives. If you’d like to give it a try give our friendly appointments team a call on 01234 356350.


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