Money is a highly emotional component within the majority of intimate relationships. Many divorcing couples cite money as the reason for the divorce, right up there with infidelity and physical or emotional abuse. What are the emotional components of money and how do we help couples navigate these stormy waters?
Money is part of our attachment history. By attachment, I mean our emotional bonds to the people in our lives. From the day we are born to the day we die, we yearn for close emotional bonds that help us feel safe and known. Our feelings about money are often woven into our emotional connection with our parents and our relationship with safety and stability.
As children, our parents modeled for us how to feel about money. When you were a child, if your parents were scared about making ends meet, chances are you developed a sense of fear and even shame around the lack of money in your family. To you, “enough” money may represent safety and security on a deep emotional level. A lack of money or the threat of loosing it may cause you great anxiety and shame.
On the other hand, if money was abundant in your house while you were growing up, you may not have developed a healthy respect for money or a fear of loosing it. As a result you may spend it without concern. Money’s emotional hold on you is less about fear than about entitlement causing you to spend it too freely or invest it unwisely.
Money has great meaning to us culturally as well. Money means power, status and even greater longevity. The truth is the top 1% enjoys better education, better access to health care, leading to longer lives, and better opportunities over time. Generationally the differences of the haves and have-nots have never been greater and are in fact widening. Epigenetically, or the expression of our genes over generations, science is proving that our higher socioeconomic level is correlated with less stress leading to less heart disease, less hypertension and less diabetes.
There is also a gender component to our feelings about money and identity. For men, historically the breadwinner in the family, the lack of money can mean a lack of self-esteem and deepening depression. Without money and the power it bestows, many men have experienced a fall from the macho, once safe bastion of male entitlement.
In the recent economic down turn, many men have lost jobs and have not recovered. Unfortunately, men generally have few resources emotionally to deal with the blow of a lost job, lost status and power. Tragically the suicide rate for males 45-65 years old has jumped 50% in the last 5 years.
For women who have recently become important wage earners in the house, resentment and fatigue may rule their emotions around money. Women who work full time, have kids and have a husband at home still do a large portion of household and child management. They may feel under appreciated and taken advantage of within the family system.
Conversely, one of you may have made or inherited a great deal of money. Having a disproportionate amount of money in the hands of one partner can lead to power struggles and deeper attachment issues in the couple. The partner with money may dismiss the other partner’s inputs into the relationship, devaluing and dismissing the non wage earner. This is toxic to the relationship, creating resentment and deep-seated anger. If this is happening in your relationship, take a step back and gain some empathy for the other. Money should not be the North Star in your adult relationship; money is an adjunct to a healthy connection not a lever of power.
WHAT IS YOUR AND YOUR PARTNER’S ATTACHMENT STYLE AROUND MONEY?
An exploration of emotional meaning around money for each partner is highly important for the couple to function and to understand one another. Developing and empathic understanding for the other’s experience, from childhood to adulthood, fears and attachment style around money is critical for a functioning, connected couple.
In an effort to develop safe communication around the topic of money, here is a questionnaire for each partner to fill out and share. This is not a psychological assessment tool, and is only designed to jump start the conversation:
1. When you were growing up, was money scarce in your house?
2. If so, what are the feelings that money brings up for you now?
a. Anxiety, worries, fear, shame?
b. Anger, resentment maybe shame
c. Numbing, don’t want to think about money
d. Secure, not worried and aware that money was to be appreciated and work was respected.
3. If money was abundant in your house growing up, what are the feelings that money brings up for you?
a. Worry, anxiety about loosing it, careful of maintaining it
b. Money makes you angry, maybe your father or mother was so preoccupied with making money, they didn’t pay attention to you.
c. You don’t think about it have strong feelings; it is there and taken care of. Not a concern
d. You knew there was money yet there was a healthy consideration for maintaining it and being respectful about your family’s money.
4. What do you do now with your feelings about the lack of or wealth in your family of origin?
a. Work very hard to make or keep your money, hopefully calming your anxiety. You want to control where the money is, where it is spent and what is happening with the money.
b. Your anger pushes you to either pursue money or not at all. Your decisions regarding money are reactive causing you to make impulsive decisions about money.
c. You are not worried about making money or keeping it. You don’t want the stress. Your partner can deal with it.
d. You feel balanced about your family of origin and money, not reactive, aware and respectful of money.
5. How do you treat/feel about your partner around money?
a. Controlling! You are anxious and can’t bear how much he/she spends.
b. Angry, you spend money to get back at your partner’s controlling tendencies.
c. Don’t care, ask or get involved, your partner takes care of things.
d. You are involved and respectful of your partner’s help. You invest, manage and talk about your money without issues together. You work well as a team.
If you answered “a” most of the time, you have an anxious attachment style around money. You may feel deep shame and fear in relation to money. Your challenge is to allow for close, connected and loving relationships while soothing your anxieties around money.
You may tend to control money; you may get upset about your partner’s spending habits leading to tension in the relationship. You might even feel that money and the security it bestows you is more important than your adult relationships. This is detrimental to your well being, we know that loneliness over time kills.
If you answered “b” most often, your style is reactive and angry. Money causes you to make impulsive decisions. Perhaps you spend too much or make unwise investments. Something about money causes you to be emotional and unable to step back from finding a safe balanced relationship to money.
If “c” was your most common answer, you are avoidant about money. You don’t want to deal with the emotional implications of money. Money may have been abundant in your house growing up and you did not have to develop respect for money. You emotionally shut down in respect to money and assume all is well.
It is possible that you may be intimidated by managing your money, allowing your partner to do the heavy lifting. You don’t want to ask too many questions. You detach from the process of handling or maintaining your money, leaving the day-to-day bill paying to your partner.
If you answered with “d” most often, you are secure emotionally around money. You understand money is important and it comes with hard work and responsibility. You don’t need to control those around you with money. You are balanced and responsible with creating, investing money while having a healthy adult relationship.
CREATING A NARRATIVE BOTH INDIVIDUALLY AND AS A COUPLE
For each partner, think about and write up a story that is illustrative of what was happening with money in your family of origin. Stay in the feelings around this story. Were you scared? Were you ashamed of not having what other kids had at school? Were you proud of the things your family had? What is the physical experience of the meaning of money from your childhood? Did the thought of money create a pit in your stomach? A tight jaw? Try to stay in the felt sense of what money does to your physical being. This can provide you with a great deal of information.
Think about each of your parents, what kind of homes did they grow up in? What were their attachment style regarding money? What did they model for you around money?
How do you bring those influences to your relationship today? What does your spouse bring? Can you find empathy for the meaning of money for yourself and your spouse?
Next, start to co-create a narrative around money with your spouse. What do you both stand for? What are your goals? What do you want to invest in? How do you want to retire? Are you going to pay for your kid’s college? What do you want your legacy to be? Create a narrative that encompasses both of your values and meanings around money.
Then develop a plan on how to spend, manage and invest your money together. This is best done with an investment advisor. Both partners need to know where the money is, including passwords to accounts. Both need to monitor the growth, spending and income of assets. When you become true partners, equal in decision making with empathy and compassion for the other on emotional level in regards to money, you will feel content and safer within the couple.