If you want a happy relationship, it’s obvious that you’ve got to talk about sex, which can be pretty tough. But new data shows talking about money in a relationship might be even harder. The LearnVest Money Habits & Confessions survey, released in December 2016, shines a light on exactly how much taboo can surround money matters for some couples. Luckily, even though money can be a fraught topic, it doesn’t have to wreck your relationship. Better yet, it can actually make your bond stronger.
Some of the most fascinating revelations from the survey, which polled 1,000 people, include that 68 percent of Americans say money leads to more tension in their relationships than sex does. That actually makes a lot of sense, according to Alexa von Tobel, founder and CEO of LearnVest. “A talk about money is rarely just a talk about dollars and cents, it’s a more intimate reveal of beliefs and values, expressed through how you spend,”. The survey includes other surprising tidbits, like that 32 percent of poll respondents don’t know their partner’s salary, and 58 percent would rather roll solo than stay with someone who couldn’t be responsible with their finances.
As important as money is in a relationship, it’s often easy to avoid the topic. But that can do so much more harm than good. “Money is tied to our most basic sense of security, and any breach of financial trust can permanently damage the relationship. Better to be honest and deal with a conflict than to maintain secrets,” von Tobel says. Neglecting these discussions might leave your relationship vulnerable to cracks. “Couples who can discuss the basics of financial goals, including planning for the future, retirement, and creating shared investments, usually feel tighter bonds and are less likely to split up over minor disagreements,” says Tammy Nelson, Ph.D., certified sex and relationship therapist, board-certified sexologist, and author of The New Monogamy.
That’s not to say you need to know every last detail of your partner’s finances. Here’s what you should find out, if you don’t know it already. When it comes to must-have intel, your partner’s current state of debt is way up there. “Some people are comfortable carrying debt like a credit card balance while others aren’t, so it’s important to make sure you are on the same page,” von Tobel says. You should also know whether they’re a spender or a saver, how they feel about their current income, and what their income-related goals are for the future. If you learn something that makes you nervous, don’t freak out. Sure, some financial habits are red flags, but you can work on them together if you’re in it for the long haul. “The goal isn’t to decide who’s ultimately right, just to get on the same page so you’re not fighting every time you write a check,” von Tobel says.
If your partner has committed any “financial infidelity” in your relationship, knowing about it is much better than the alternative. It’s one thing if your partner tells you a white lie about an expensive purchase then eventually fesses up, von Tobel says. But if you notice they have a habit of routinely hiding money-related information from you and they aren’t committed to changing, it’s time for a serious discussion about your future together.
So, here’s how to actually have the Money Talk in a relationship. Set the scene. That means choosing a time when you’re both well-rested, in good moods, not dealing with distractions, and both of you know the conversation is about to happen. “It seems that no one really feels good about money, but be sure to check any negativity at the door so you can both stay focused on making progress,” von Tobel says. She also recommends having a game plan in mind, “Whatever your goals, come ready with the information you’ll need to make decisions together.” Before you dive into the nitty-gritty, it can help to start with some positive reinforcement. Nelson suggests bringing up something you appreciate about your partner’s way of handling finances. “People respond positively to appreciation, and they will withdraw if they feel criticized,” she says. And if there’s an area they excel in where you could use some help, ask them for it. Maybe you can set up a system where you’re each using your financial strengths to compensate for each other’s weaknesses, which can only help fortify your bond.
If you’re having a money conversation because you’re upset with how your partner is handling their cash, work on new budget parameters both of you can follow, and offer ideas for how you can improve your own spending and saving. When discussing specific spending behaviors you’re not a fan of, try to use “I” statements, such as, “I feel anxious about how little of a dent we’ve made on our mortgage, and I think there are ways we can contribute more each month.” That kind of language is less likely to make people feel defensive, so your partner is more likely to listen to your actual concerns than put their guard up.
Throughout it all, be honest with your partner. If talking about money is hard for you, say so. If you think you need weekly or monthly meetings to stay the course, bring that up. If you think your problems are worth looping in a couple’s therapist, that’s fine, too, but express it. Even though it might feel awkward sometimes, remember that having these discussions will make you two so much stronger in the long run.