Psychologist and couples therapist Don Cole explains how regularly and openly discussing money brings couples closer and makes their families happier.
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Modern marriage is a romantic contract, not a financial agreement between families, but that doesn’t mean that matrimony and matri-money aren’t intrinsically linked. Study after study after study has proven that partners who talk about cash within the context of a broader conversation about life goals thrive while those who procrastinate, treat money as taboo, or always prioritize emotional issues falter.
Psychologist and romance expert Don Cole says the reason for this is that money is one of the most tangible parts of a marriage system and an underlying source of conflict for many. Couples encounter all types of common financial questions. Spend or save? Individual or joint banking accounts? Should we ask our parents for help? Give to charity or invest at home? Collectively, these form a rhetorical and profoundly unfun Sudoku puzzle. Trying to solve the whole thing by plugging in numbers can work, but is often stressful and time-consuming. Cole says the key is having a strategy, an agreed upon endgame.
For couples who want to speak honestly about their finances — most couples — the first thing to understand is that conversations about money are rarely about money. The key to relationships, Cole explains, is shared “dreams.” When partners want the same thing, whether that’s love, security, or a summer vacation, they tend to row in the same direction, moving smooth and fast. When they don’t or, more likely, haven’t expressly pinned down their priorities, conflicts tend to arise. Those conflicts can seem like they are about money. They are not. They are about the values that determine the allocation of money. This is why having a great financial planner can start to feel like having an effective therapist.
Couples that are good at having honest, open, and ongoing dialogues about finances are therefore more intimately connected and satisfied, which impacts all areas of their lives. They can more proactively manage their families and lives and focus on enjoying each other and the things they love to do, thereby setting a more positive example for their kids. Generally speaking, everyone’s happier.
So when financial stress extinguishes the flame, Cole says couples ought to get back to basics. Listen to each other, find ways to honor each other’s differences, create shared meaning around the legacy you want to leave together, and always lean towards your partner, literally and emotionally.
“Couples that last over time are really good at finding a sense of shared meaning around important issues,” says Cole. Money doesn’t mean much on its own.
But shared is tricky. Shared is agreement. Shared requires, well, sharing. And this is another spot that financial conversation may prove beneficial to a relationship as a whole. Because finances are complicated and, on some level anyway, an exercise in logic, they offer partners the opportunity to strategize together and jettison the idea of changing each other’s minds, which can be very problematic.
“The mistake couples make is arguing that their partner should simply see things the way they do,” says Cole. “But the science teaches us that successful couples recognize their differences and learn to dialogue about them in ways that honor both people.”
It’s easy to say, “You’re being ridiculous” in the context of an argument about how much salt goes in chili and very hard to get to that place in the context of a discussion about whole life insurance. People often have questions about finances, which is why it’s common to ask for outside help, but they are rarely ridiculous. That’s why high-stakes conversations about money are a great place for a couple to establish ways to plan together even though it might be tempting to think that retirement plans are something to build up to after discussing whether or not the fridge is organized logically.
The best way to avoid what Cole calls “gridlock,” relationship low points during which no planning gets done, is to not necessarily to take a scenic route towards dreams, but definitely to ditch the map. In reality, life is long, complicated, and unpredictable. The way to get through life with someone is by talking to them constantly. The way to get good at life with someone is by listening to them constantly. And if you’re having troubling jump-starting that dialogue, financial planning might be the way to go.
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