Talking about one’s financial situation early in a relationship is as important as talking about safe sex. It’s something that needs to be shared just as early and just as deeply. When deciding whether to pursue a relationship, both people deserve to know what they are getting into. They can then see if it’s possible to handle what may be uncomfortably different financial status, differing values about money, or different assumptions about what is and what isn’t each other’s business. As challenging as the “money talk” may be, it is a crucial step in a developing relationship.
As a relationship becomes more serious, the money conversation becomes more serious as well. Being open about money matters and negotiating who pays for what and what each expects from the other regarding how money is used reveals a lot about each other’s values, maturity, and responsibility. As the relationship progresses and the couple begins to think about a future together, differences in attitudes and habits around money become more important. How they work together to resolve those differences is one of the many indicators of how the two of them will handle important and sticky issues as they become a couple.
Avoiding these conversations results in stress for the individuals and uncertainty in the couple. The issue won’t go away. Eventually something will happen that will surface the ways in which money matters for both.
Jason, for example, has been seeing me for several months for help with his intermittent depression. He tends to overthink and ruminate on issues that trouble him, habits that contribute to his generally pessimistic approach to life. He’s been dating Emmy for three months and is starting to feel like this romance might go somewhere. When, he asks, should he tell her that he has a trust fund of a half million dollars? A prior girlfriend started treating him differently once she knew he was loaded. If he tells Emmy, she may look at him in a different way too. If he doesn’t tell her, she may think he was lying to her by omission. “No wonder I’m depressed,” he says. “I can’t win no matter what I do at this point.” I worry that he’s going to create the very breakup he is dreading by withdrawing from the issue – and from Emmy.
Deb, another 20-something client, has a different money issue – and a different reason for avoiding conversations about money. She owes $48,000 is school loans and has two credit cards that have a combined debt of $8,000. Her boyfriend wants to talk about moving in together, maybe even getting married. He has little debt and big dreams for buying a house as soon as they can. She wishes she had told him about her financial situation a long time ago. There never seemed to be a good time. Now she’s scared his feelings about their relationship will change if she is honest with him about her debt load.
Ed’s issues about money are a reflection of his shaky self-esteem. He buys his girlfriend, Carey, flashy presents, giving her the impression that he is very well off. He’s not. He’s on a full athletic scholarship at the local state college. Since academics are hard for him, his parents struggle to send him spending money so he doesn’t have to have a job and can use his time to study.
Carey, on the other hand, is very careful with money. She waitresses on weekends to have spending money. Carey has told Ed that she feels bad that she can’t reciprocate with presents for him but he tells her not to worry about it. Privately, Ed worries that Carey may not be as interested in him if he tells her he is having a hard time keeping up with his own standards for how to treat someone he really does love.
How these people handle their financial issues will have a major impact on their relationships. None of them is a bad person. All of them are aware that they have painted themselves into a corner by not sharing important information from the start. What seemed like a good idea at the time is now haunting them. Even though they haven’t been out-and-out lying, they have allowed their partners to believe they are in different financial shape than is the case. At this point, they’re upset with themselves and scared about what will happen in their relationships. Rightfully so. Trust issues around finances are among the top reasons that relationships fall apart.
A lie, even a lie of omission, can undermine the trust in a relationship. The longer it goes, the worse it gets. If these people’s relationships develop to the point that they start talking about moving in together or marrying and building a mutual life, the truth about their financial status will have to come forward. When that happens, their partners are likely to be taken aback and to wonder what else hasn’t been shared.
By keeping silent about money matters, Jason, Deb, and Ed have created the very challenge to the relationship that they were trying to avoid. To move their relationships forward, they’re going to have to step up and fess up. They each owe their partner a huge apology and the best explanation they can provide. Sharing that their fear of losing the relationship was what overwhelmed their good judgment may help their partners forgive. They will undoubtedly need reassurance that the dodging around money issues isn’t a sign that other important information is also being withheld. Hopefully each of them has a partner who can understand that a good person can make a bad mistake and still be worth loving.