When I was a new therapist, I thought the hardest thing for couples to talk about would be their sex life. Not so. As long as neither one is cheating, talking about sex is a walk in the park for many couples. It’s when I bring up the “m” word, money, that things get really, really tense.

However mature and enlightened we may feel we are, the subject of money often is still related to the individuals’ self-esteem issues and power in the relationship. If a couple has avoided dealing with their attitudes toward money and how it will be earned and spent, it becomes a danger zone in the relationship. The more apart they feel in their values about money, the more they avoid talking about it. The more they avoid talking about it, the bigger the gap becomes. The bigger the gap, the harder it is to bridge it. The result? Couples who walk on eggshells around money.

Jane Crowley*, for example, outearns husband Tom by a wide margin. He could make a better living but he prefers to work part-time and work in his ceramics studio as much as he can, creating sculptures that somehow don’t sell at the crafts fairs he frequents. She thinks since she earns more, she should decide more. He thinks she knew who he was when they married and it’s unreasonable for her to want to control the family finances. To make his point, he goes out for lunch every day with his artist friends, spending money that Jane would rather see go into savings. Several times a month, Jane blows up about the extravagance of restaurant lunches. Tom accuses her of being unsupportive of his art and generally too uptight about money when they have plenty – to which she replies that the plenty they have is because she is out there earning it.

Is this couple doomed? Maybe not. Except for these fights, they enjoy each other immensely. They share interests in the arts, enjoy the same music and movies, and have a cozy intimate life. Talks about money have become an abyss they ignore until Jane can’t stand it anymore and they have their usual same old battle that leaves them both shaken.

Clearly the fight isn’t really about the $40 a week that goes to the local diner although that shouldn’t be minimized either. $2000 a year is a hunk of change. The conversation these two are really avoiding is about their expectations for each other as partners in building a life. He wants her support for his dreams of being a recognized artist. She thinks that was fine when they were younger but since the only person who seems to like his work is his mother, perhaps it’s time for him to “grow up” and be more responsible. Recent rumors about possible layoffs at her workplace are making her extremely anxious. No wonder they would rather fight about lunch money.

Kathy and Mel Brown have a different but just as serious conflict. They agreed from the beginning that Kathy would stay home with the kids and Mel would be the sole earner. Since she was thirty-nine at her first pregnancy, they had their two children close together. The kids are now 4 and 3. Mel gets furious when Kathy buys things like shoes for the kids without consulting him. Kathy feels like a kid with an allowance that is never quite enough and resents it. Attempts at discussion quickly move to arguments that neither want, so both avoid. Better to focus on their delight with what they both believe to be a miracle in their lives: two healthy, happy children both had believed they would never have.

Their fights aren’t really about the cost of kids’ shoes. Mel hasn’t wanted to tell Kathy that they can’t manage on his salary alone. He’s been hiding increasing debt because he feels a man “should” be able to support his family. Kathy had a teaching career and a paycheck until the kids were born. She misses the standard of living they once had. Even more important, she misses teaching but feels she “should” be happy to stay home with the children she is so blessed to have. Like Jane and Tom, their discussions about money go nowhere because they’re not talking about what needs to be talked about.

When there seems to be enough money (whatever “enough” means to the couple), the couple can avoid the conversation for a very long time. Bills somehow get paid. Neither one goes nuts buying things the family can’t afford. Both feel bad that they don’t have a real budget or savings account or retirement fund but neither can bring themselves to confront it. Having skirted the issue for years, it feels like addressing it could shake the whole relationship. So they continue avoiding until something happens—loss of a job, a whopping bill incurred by one or the other, an emergency that requires funds they don’t have—that pushes them smack into the issue.

For many couples, that something is the current recession. Now that money is tight, jobs less certain, and raises and advancement less likely, many couples are having to finally face their differences in values and habits around money. The Crowleys and the Browns bumped along financially as people do until it became clear that it wasn’t going to work anymore. Fears about the recession or realization that the money coming in didn’t match what needed to go out precipitated a crisis for both couples.

There are lots of articles out there about how to handle money. Like the rest of us, these couples know the drill. Make a budget. Keep track of what comes in and what goes out. Pay down debt. Get rid of high interest credit cards. Most adults know what they are supposed to do. Knowing what we’re supposed to do usually isn’t the problem. It’s the underlying issues that put good people into a bad standoff around financial matters.

Changing things means surfacing those issues. In order to do that, people have to feel safe. Both need to be willing to agree that their current financial situation is their shared responsibility. Both got their family into the situation by either actively avoiding the issue or by passively accepting avoidance as the way to go. It’s going to take willing teamwork by both to change the way finances are handled.

Four Steps for Change

  1. Make a pact that there will be no blaming, shaming, criticizing, or putting each other down during any discussions around money. You are working to be on the same team, solving a mutual problem; not on different teams trying to best each other.
  2. Agree that there will be absolutely no secrets around money. Hiding assets or expenditures is a kind of lying and good relationships are never built on lies.
  3. Most difficult of all: Do some sincere and deep self-reflection. Ask yourself what is preventing you from being a fully participating partner in money matters. You may not be able to figure it out all at once. Set aside time to talk with each other about the hidden issues, however embarrassing they may be. Be there for each other. Remember that issues are usually hidden because they are painful, unattractive, or loaded with unresolved fears. When couples can listen to each other with empathy, they can begin the process of making change.
  4. Don’t try to change everything at once (unless you really have to). Figure out a few changes you can make and give each other lots of support for doing them.

As painful as it might be, facing financial issues together doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It can be an opportunity to grow up as individuals and grow as a couple. Taking charge of your own issues about money and learning how to work as a team around financial matters can deepen your relationship and give you a shared sense of purpose.

The Crowleys and the Browns are works in progress. Because they are committed to being together, they are facing their fears and supporting each other in making changes. It hasn’t been easy but both couples are working hard to develop a united approach to money matters.

(*Note: Names and identifying details have been changed to protect people’s privacy.)