Love and Money Part 2: Money Talks

People say “money talks” to describe the power of money to persuade, to control an argument or end it. In this blog I want to explore how to communicate effectively about money, and its power in romantic relationships. I think it is important to this discussion to acknowledge the inflated importance money has come to have in our society (here and here are articles about the way greed is ruining us and our planet). Romantic relationships are perhaps the area of life in which money’s dominance should be most questioned. However, the might that money holds in the world outside our personal relationships ensures that it “talks” loudly in even our most intimate relationships where one might hope emotional labor and emotional intelligence might hold more sway.  I will outline below how to navigate talking about money in relationships.

Most of this will be about preparation and less about the actual meat of the conversation. Because money is equated with power, the topic could not be more loaded for each of us. Nothing is more explosive than love and money in combination. Love brings up our deepest, tenderest needs for closeness and fears of rejection and money can stir feelings of ruthlessness, powerlessness and/or suspicion. Therefore, most of having talks about money is about examining all of the charges it holds for us in relationships. If we can dismantle this internal field of landmines, we can get so much farther. If you want more specifics on how to have more open, empathic communication in general, including how to conduct the meaty part of the money conversation check out this blog. I recommend you use the process I described there for all serious money conversations.

            To prepare for dialogues about dollars, chats about cash, spars about spending or any such occasion, I strongly recommend you begin by reflecting on your own lifelong relationship with the material world. And yes, I do mean the whole material world, cause in this case the metaphor matters. Material, Matter, Money - they all etymologically trace to the Mother, some mother or goddess that refers to the archetypal Great Mother, who psychologically relates to our experience of our mother, when she seemed like a goddess, in our infancy. This is why money and infantile power and needs for intimacy are such a sticky wicket. The first “other” we meet in relationship (regardless, of course of their actual gender, which could be anything) sets the tone for us relationally, but also (and less often exposited) sets the tone for how we relate to the material world. So I (and you and you and you) relate to wealth the way I relate to my body, to the earth, to food, etc. If I historically employed dissociative defenses in my relationship with my overwhelming, anxious mother (yeah, maybe I have) then I am also likely to be clumsy/unconsciously self-destructive of my body, careless with money/self-sabotaging and checked out in conversations about money (yeah, ok I am). Similarly, according to your own unique relationship with your first care-giver, you learn how to relate to food, your body, success and money. Do you feel entitled around these things, like a beggar always on the outside, over-fed or undeserving?  These patterns are likely to be pervasive, often unconscious, and they will likely surface in your closest relationships.

            As important as the infant-parent dyadic influences on our developing psyches are, they exist within a societal context of deeper significance and more gravitas. Our class background and brand of social conditioning about money creates our beliefs about what constitutes valid labor, whether or not sharing is a virtue, how money should be spent, passed on, saved etc. These beliefs come with a set of ethics about what is right to do with money. These are bound to come into conflict with the ethics your partner(s) was raised with at some point. Underneath these beliefs are unconscious felt-senses that are compelling and explosive. I have had to face a deep, hungry feeling related to having been raised poor. I have faced it many times in relationship if I feel like a partner’s actions or ways of being threaten my subsistence. We are all built with triggers around money, places where we become irrational. That is why in addition to all of this psychological work it is vital to know as many data points as possible about your actual financial situation. Granted this is not simple and we’ll look at the complexities more in a minute. For now, suffice it to say that facts and numbers help to check us and are informative of how our distortions might be functioning. We must always be especially attuned to the differences between our perceptions and the facts, as these distortions can inform us of other factors in us or in the relationship. Imagine the following example:

            Ari was raised in a lower middle-class family with security around the essentials, but little else. After working very hard to build a restaurant business with no higher education, they partner with Shane, a visual artist, who was raised in much greater wealth with every opportunity and encouragement to succeed. Ari perpetually feels like they work longer hours and harder than Shane, but how can these things be compared? When the couple tracks their hours of work for two weeks, it turns out Shane puts in more hours between studio time, networking with gallery owners and collaborators and coming up with new project ideas. Once this data comes to surface, the reality can be explored. Ari can then perhaps pass through recognition that Shane counting networking brunches and cocktails and sitting in the bathtub ‘getting ideas” goes against his ethical structure for what work looks like. If Ari continues to follow this thread hopefully they can come to separate the resentments they feel from Shane and experience their own sense of loss and appreciation over how hard they have had to work in life. Hopefully, in the process Shane can stay open to understanding the differences and inequalities between them and not get lost in defensiveness about their entitlement. If Shane can stay open, they may be able to help Ari overcome their need to work so hard, and relax into their new level of greater financial security.

            The point is to examine the places where we “feel like” whatever thing – if we feel like our partner spends more frivolously, earns less than they should, doesn’t work as hard, takes our work for granted or anything else that seems to fall in the category of suspicion, judgments or resentments, these feelings are worth examination. Having some data is helpful to the process. It is by no means the end of the conversation. If I feel like I work more than my partner and I earn more money and this is supported by the numbers, so what? That is another matter. If my partner (the lower earner) struggles with a disability or mental health condition, or if they are driven passionately to do things that society simply doesn’t value like teaching, activism or art this may challenge my societally/family conditioned values on meritocracy and sharing resources. This is going to be even more difficult and simultaneously more important if my own success is built on work I don’t truly enjoy or if I feel like I can never achieve perfect enough success myself.

In the U.S., institutional power and privilege structures maintain the relative fixity of social classes while upholding a mythology of individual achievement. This causes most who have not achieved material success to feel like they have failed and those who have garnered luxury to feel like they have earned it. Both the feeling of failure on one end and that of validity/entitlement on the other can exist in spades despite facts to the contrary. If you are partnered with someone who has radically different capacities for what society deems valid forms of labor than you do, you need to be prepared to break down some of the garbage you have been fed about what constitutes valuable labor. Start here, here and here to challenge your assumptions and educate yourself about emotional labor and productivity. This may make the facts feel less important or not at all important. Though I still believe they are of use as a reference point. Once you can acknowledge any discrepancy between incomes, and then explore different levels of ability and opportunity you can approach the whole truth of your situation. Sometimes, we throw up smoke screens to avoid facing these truths because they are really painful. What if the truth is I am trading my labor in the world and the money I make from it for your sexual and emotional labor? Does that mean my sex or my emotions are worth less and I am being used for money? This is the core of valuelessness that lives under a lot of folks’ entitlement to sexual and emotional labor. For all the edifice of success and wealth one may have built, there is some part that is often driven by feelings of deep inadequacy. It is common for this to play out in relationship in the form of projection, where the one who provides the emotional/sexual labor is made to feel worthless, so that the high-earner never has to face those feelings themself.

There are no ready-made answers to solve the issues once these deeper truths are uncovered. But, at least once the core fears and wounding have been uncovered, all parties in the relationship can undertake working with their part. The longer these things stay hidden, buried in either assumptions without facts, or facts without context the more couples spend miring in fights that are not really about whatever matter is supposedly at hand. Though I of course have all my own biases, I will say that I believe in generosity as an extension of love and compassion and I do not believe gifts of money are any grander than generosity with time, listening, sharing spirituality, sexuality, creativity or knowledge. I encourage you all to sincerely and vulnerably acknowledge all your partner brings to your relationship when discussing money. This should be more than lip-service and actually mean your partner is equal and valid in their contributions and respected in decision-making about money. If after all of this talking and thinking together and contextualizing, you still feel your partnership is not fair or right for you, it is your responsibility to work with your partner(s) to either find boundaries around spending/earning that feel acceptable or end the relationship in as kind a way as possible, and that may mean some financial support. We will break-up/divorce questions in the next blog. But, let’s speak here to possible boundaries you might set to maintain and/or restore balance in your relationship. No answers are the “right” ones for every relationship, these are just suggestions you might try. I will explore one option in depth, not because I think it’s better, but because I believe it is the most emotionally loaded. I will then provide resource for implementing different organizational strategies.

Keeping finances separate. This is a boundary easier drawn initially than re-drawn after blending finances. So the simplest advice I can give you is to think very carefully and move slowly toward combining bank accounts and expenses. Many very seriously committed partners never mix money pools these days. Independence works well enough if you have similar incomes/earning capacities. The problems come when those are different, even temporarily. If you have been in love with someone for fifteen years, would you really leave them on their own financially as they struggled through crippling PTSD following an assault, cancer treatment, prolonged unemployment or any of the catastrophic things that can befall us in a lifetime? I hope again here to advocate for compassionate generosity toward our loved ones. I do not encourage anyone to bankrupt themselves to give to others. Boundaries can become very fluid in relationships where money is shared without stated limits. There should be no shame in asking for what you need. There should also be no shame in saying, “Sorry, I really can’t.” Yet, we experience boatloads of shame for both. It can be very hard to face the fact that you are in over your head trying to support someone.

Even if you have been partially or completely supporting a loved one, it is not too late for you to draw boundaries. To be compassionate here I recommend you work with a therapist and/or mediator to help you come up with a plan for the separation of your finances. All parties should feel empowered to speak to their own needs and interests and feel supported to get a fair outcome. I strongly recommend you do not try to have this conversation without outside support. It may be very difficult or impossible to maintain the relationship throughout the process of financially separating. The plan must honor the needs and concerns of the party with less resource. Withdrawing from the work force for even a short period of time has real life consequences on folk’s employability. If you have been supporting someone financially, understand that it is a huge deal for you to remove that resource all of a sudden. Whether you are aiming to continue the relationship with new financial boundaries or end the relationship, please try to work out a transition plan with them. This is much more likely to be satisfactory to both parties with some form of mediation. Perhaps you can agree to support your partner through some form of training for employment, or help to connect them to community resources or both in addition to providing transitional monetary support. I might recommend finding a therapist who has worked narratively, or in another strengths-based modality to help the partner with the least resources connect with their untapped/unclaimed strengths and resources.

Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center.

Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center.

            So many other well considered strategies, tips and thoughts are already out there, please read here and here and here for a few ideas. Please look them over with your partner(s) and discuss. Next time we’ll look more closely at how to separate finances in break-ups and divorces.