Weekend Highlights

Published January 5, 2012
At Home & Living

Money Talks

by Cheryl Murfin
seattle child article photo

Bob, a Seattle resident, didn’t get an allowance – or, perhaps more importantly to him, the opportunity to learn to manage money that an allowance provides a child. His experience is part of why Bob became adamant when be became a parent that his kids get an allowance. This approach clashed with his wife Nancy’s approach to handling money with the kids. The couple’s discordant money backgrounds and attitudes became a wedge in the relationship.

They are not alone. The truth is, for many couples, talking about money and especially financial troubles, is extremely stressful.

“Financial issues really are among the most difficult discussions for couples,” says Carole Milan Danis, MSW, LICSW, BCD, a Seattle therapist who specializes in the relatively new field of financial therapy (not to be confused with financial counseling or financial planning).

Milan Danis says it helps to understand the negative emotions that can arise in discussions of the seemingly cool and emotionless subject of money.  By understanding the roots of  these emotions, Milan Davis says couples and families can resolve conflict and enjoy healthy discussions of one of the most common marriage and family stressors.

“Sometimes the underlying issue is not about money but about some other aspect of the relationship – fear, anxiety, discouragement, insecurity, anger and power, among others.”

We asked Milan Danis to share her insights on difficulties and solutions toward healthy communication around money. Her answers follow:

What are common finance-related issues you see in your office?
The lack of awareness that each person has a unique relationship with money. For example, often, the way an individual’s parents related to money influences their own relationship to money. This was the case with Nancy and Bob.

I also look closely at the couple’s own history with money, what it means to each partner, how each uses it and the purpose it serves. Determining what’s important to each partner is essential for a working relationship but also reveals whether they are using money in congruence with their values.

Why do couples find it hard to discuss money?
I see a lack of adequate communication skills. The question is not only the degree to which couples are skilled in articulating their wants and needs but also how effectively they can listen to each other. 

Another problem is the use of criticism, shame or blame by one or both parties. These are deadly to communication, positive regard for each other and the overall health of the relationship. When they are part of a couple’s communication, the conversation shuts down and partners may become destructive with silence, angry words or intonation.

What are the most common sources of financial distress in families or among couples?

  • A lack of skills and strategies to manage money.
  • Not knowing how to create and live within a budget or make a spending and savings plan.
  • Problems with goal-setting, prioritizing and implementation goals
  • When one person’s spending leads to debt and other stressors on the couple.

What is necessary to a healthy discussion of finances?
Discussion is productive when individuals are able to tolerate differing perspectives and when each partner is open to their partner’s input and is honest around thoughts and feelings about money issues. Without these elements, the real issues and feelings will go underground but still play an active role in the discussions, preventing resolution of the problems. Identifying and accepting each partner’s unique “money style” significantly enhances discussions.

Should couples include kids in their money discussions?
By age 7 or 8 most children are able to understand the basic concepts of money management, such as the importance of saving and how an allowance works. 

It is advisable to teach children about the purpose and use of money. Whether children should earn an allowance for their desires or whether a specific amount should be given to them is a delicate question and one that relates to an important value for most people, the value of work.

What’s important is that the couple comes to some agreement on the issue and communicates the expectations clearly to the child. Gradually allowing more responsibility for money as the child matures prevents children from being overwhelmed with expectations they may not be able to meet. 

Does gender play a role in the difficulties some couples experience communicating about money?
Men and women do approach money differently but it usually related to the power structure in the relationship. If one partner is the primary breadwinner, he or she might feel more entitled to control the money in the household. This is especially true if only one partner is working outside the home. Power issues play a significant role in any relationship and can cause additional stress and conflict between the partners. Traditionally, women have not had much power or control over their lives. Although this is changing more and more, some women are still conditioned to defer to the men in their lives regarding money matters. In order to equalize the equation, a woman (or a man) needs to learn how to be assertive and both must be committed to fairness and accept responsibility for his or her own relationship to and use of money. 

Another gender issue is how some women and men communicate. Men tend to want to talk about the facts, tasks and solutions whereas women want to address the feeling components and process issues in money or other discussions. These differences can often create conflict in the relationship unless the parties are made aware of the potential, allow for the differences and make good efforts to understand the other’s position.

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