Money Baggage and Relationships

Money affects every aspect of our lives, and therefore has a profound effect on our intimate relationships. Few people will disagree with me when I say that money is a common reason for many arguments. Survey after survey shows this. Money, in fact, is often cited as the number one reason people get divorced.

Our money baggage influences everything: whether we can find a partner, whom we choose, how easy or difficult it is to maintain a long-term relationship, and our tendency to lay blame on our partner when discussing finances.

Recall Oliver, whose father yelled about the grocery bill. He fled Austria at age fifteen, far from the painful memories of his parents’ fights over money. He became a farmer in Canada and spent most of his life avoiding having to deal with money. His money baggage is: We don’t have the money, something is always wrong! I’m out of here!

Oliver had accountants deal with the farm finances, and he let his wife, Anita, handle the family money. Anita’s money baggage is: I’m bad with money and the end is always near.

She shared: “I have wanted money—and what money can provide—ever since I heard the alluring sound of my grandfather’s coins jingling in his pocket when I was very small, signaling he wanted to give them to me. Money was good stuff; magical and mysterious and good things came from having it. But Mom thought it wasn’t proper for me to want money and ask people for it. So after being allowed, once, to have Grandpa’s coins, it was ‘No!’ after that.”

One day Anita took some coins off her dad’s dresser and was punished for it. She was locked in her bedroom and not allowed to come out until she confessed and apologized to her father. She refused to admit having taken the money, even though everyone knew she had. She cried and cried but her parents would not let her come out of her room. She felt afraid and ashamed. Her conclusion about money was that she was bad with it and that she couldn’t be trusted.

As an adult, Anita reinforced her subconscious belief that she was bad with money by marrying Oliver, who she knew would be a good provider. She also became a compulsive spender. So here you have a compulsive spender, who believes deep down she is bad with money, in charge of the family finances, married to someone who wants to avoid dealing with money altogether. Arguments about money were commonplace in their marriage.

Oliver: “Anita handled the household money, a bookkeeper handled the farm bills, and an accountant prepared the yearend financials. I, on the other hand, would take the garbage out, sweep the floor, clean up the office, and file paperwork before starting on a budget. A budget that should only take two days to do would take me two to three weeks to finish.”

Anita: “I always enjoyed going shopping—until it was time to think about coming home, and then apprehension set in. I dreaded having to face the music and having Oliver find out I’d been shopping again. As the guilt took over, I would subtly maneuver my parcels from the trunk to the house to my closet unnoticed. I would be scared wearing the new clothes or using the new appliance for the first time, just waiting for Oliver to ask if it was new.

Oliver: “I never wanted to know what she bought. Our money was her responsibility anyway. I’d think, ‘When the money is gone, she can’t spend anymore.’ Well, that was a wrong assumption, but it was fine as long as I didn’t have to deal with it. Secretly, I could blame my financial ruin on her reckless and unappreciative spending.”

Anita: “My spending contributed to many fights in our marriage. When it came time to look at our finances, especially if I said we needed more money, we might as well have been reading from scripts, as we both said the exact same things every time. He’d say, ‘If you didn’t spend so much we’d have enough.’ ‘Well,’ I’d say, ‘if you would just get involved in knowing where our money goes. Groceries just keep going up, the kids need braces. We do have a joint checking account—you could look at that from time to time. And if you could get the farm bills under control, we’d be fine.’ These fights never stopped me from spending for long and it never stopped Oliver from avoiding money. For twenty-five years we were talking about money—but we never heard a word the other said. It looked like a wonderful marriage to the outside world, but it wasn’t.”

A lot of money disagreements arise out of our partner’s fears and automatic behaviors colliding with our own. A subtle dance often ensues to avoid dealing with it, while frustration and resentment grow. Most of the time, one spouse blames the other and just can’t understand why the other one won’t change his or her behavior.

How often have you said to yourself, “If only my partner would handle money the way I do, or do as I say, then our money problems would be over!” All the while your spouse is thinking, “If only my spouse would handle money the way I do—then our money problems would be over!”

For most of us, it was common to grow up in a household where money was not discussed. Often couples tell me they seldom or never talk about money, even those who have been together for decades. It’s simply taboo. Given that money is so central to every decision we make, how can we have an honest and fulfilling relationship if we do not talk about it? And how can we talk about it if we don’t understand our money baggage and how it is driving our own behavior?

Are you in a relationship where money is not discussed? How come? What are you afraid of? What is your partner afraid of? Help each other discover your respective money baggage. What behavior do you notice in yourself and your partner? Explore where these behaviors came from.

You might save each other a lot of suffering. You might begin to let go of old patterns that don’t serve your soul and become closer as a couple; it might even save your marriage.

For some couples, money baggage does not always lead to arguments. In a household of relative harmony, however, it can still play a powerful role. It can create a separateness that does not allow for complete emotional connection in the relationship.

Tune in next week for more on how Money Baggage affects Relationships.

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