Keep money troubles from becoming relationship troubles

Military couples and families face extra financial burdens that civilians might not encounter. In fact, among all the stressors military couples and Veterans face, concerns about finances often top the list. That’s not surprising considering all of the expenses that come with your military service. For example, PCSing and relocating can often be costly. Though some parts of your move are covered, there will also be little things that add up, or you might move to an area with a higher cost of living. In addition, partners and spouses might lose income as a result of changing (or quitting) jobs due to the move, which can negatively affect your household income. As a couple, you also might change your approach to how you manage your finances. For example, responsibilities might shift during deployment (perhaps you handle bills and money management while home, and your spouse does it while you’re away). And you even might notice changes in your income, especially if you earn tax-free, hazardous duty, or other types of special pay while deployed.

With all the potential changes and extra stresses, there’s a chance you and your partner might not always be on the same page about finances, which can affect your physical health, relationship health, and your performance. For example, financial strain is associated with sleep problems, aches and pains, and increased use of tobacco and other substances.

Financial stress is often linked with relationship dissatisfaction, increased hostility, and more conflict among couples too. Fights over finances can be particularly damaging to your relationship because these types of conflicts are more intense, last longer, and have more long-term effects than conflicts over other things. Disagreements over finances are also more likely to become heated and might even be more commonly associated with violence.

The meaning of money

Although it’s not fully clear why money matters can have such a strong influence on relationships, there are a few possible reasons for the connection. Financial issues for one are simply hard to ignore. There are real-life consequences to either having—or not having—enough money in the bank. You also have to deal with those consequences on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis as you pay bills and buy things to support yourself and others. Financial stress can also affect your mood. For instance, when you’re worried about money, you might act differently or interact with your partner in a less positive way because you’re stressed.

But perhaps one of the main reasons fighting about finances can get so heated is that money often holds a deeper meaning. For many, money might symbolize success, power, and control. Or it might reflect emotional needs such as security and fulfillment. With that in mind, it starts to make sense why money can mean so much in your relationship.

So, how can you keep your relationship strong when you’re dealing with financial stress or even financial success?

  • Do a personal assessment. Before you dig into the ins and outs of how money might affect your relationship, it’s important to get a handle on your own views and biases. Whether you’re aware of it or not, your feelings about money have been developing since you were a young child—shaped by society, culture, and your family.
    • Try drawing a financial map to track your family’s patterns around money.
    • Think back to your earliest memories about money. What are your best and worst ones? What about times when you did or didn’t have financial control? And what are your personal financial goals today?
    • Think about how you think about money. When you encounter financial stress, what goes through your mind? For example, maybe you tend to catastrophize by thinking, “There’s no way I can make rent…I’m going to be out on the street!” Or maybe you over-generalize by thinking, “My wife NEVER stays on budget!”
  • Do a couple’s assessment. When you and your partner have both taken some time to mull over personal stuff, come together to share what you’ve learned. Start thinking about where money fits into your relationship dynamic.
    • Share your financial maps. Where do you see differences and similarities in the patterns you both identified? How do some of those family patterns affect your partner?
    • Discuss the facts. How have financial issues, successes, or differences influenced your relationship? Do money issues impact other aspects of your life together—for example, your sex life or parenting decisions?
    • Talk about your feelings. If you notice you seem to have the same disagreement over and over, think about whether you’ve experienced an attachment injury and map your “conflict cycle” around any financial issues. Be sure to think about the underlying meaning you place on money and whether you use finances as a means to discuss other emotional topics.
    • Avoid interpretation. For example, when you see your partner spending money in a way you don’t agree with, avoid labeling it as something “selfish” or “thoughtless.” It can affect your relationship when you assign a negative character trait to a behavior or action. It also can make it very tough to discuss things without getting heated.
  • See the big picture. When you and your partner think about how finances play into your relationship, it’s important to take stock of your current stage of life, so you can plan ahead. Take a look at the following stages and think about where you and your partner are, and how you’ll make it work in the future.
    • In the beginning stages of a committed relationship, whether you’re living together or not, chances are you probably split some costs (maybe rent, utilities, or entertainment) and have a general routine established. But you probably haven’t talked about each other’s financial histories (debt, incomes, etc.) or philosophies.
    • If you decide to get married, finances will probably come front and center. Not only will you be assuming financial responsibility for each other, but weddings (and all the costs that often come with them) can create some conflict between you.
    • If you and your partner have kids, there will be constant changes in your financial situation. Children have varying needs, and you or your spouse’s employment status or income might shift. As your kids get older, you might start thinking about planning for college too. Work on getting comfortable with assessing and re-evaluating your roles and needs to keep your relationship strong.
    • In the later years of your relationship, expect more changes. You might be getting ready to retire, which can mean the start of a new career for some. For others, it might mean travel or something else entirely. Make sure you’re both on the same page about what retirement looks like and what estate planning might mean.
  • Focus on strong communication. The best way to keep money from negatively impacting your relationship is to learn how to communicate well. Keep in mind financial stress is one-sided, so you and your partner might not always interpret events in the same way. Use your skills to stay on the same page and avoid damaging conflict.
    • Remember to use empathy, "I" statements, and negotiated time-outs when talking about money or anything else. As you probably learned through your personal and couple assessments, you both might have very different approaches to finances, so it’s important to validate each other’s views to avoid dismissing or hurting each other.
    • Practice your problem-solving skills or use a worksheet to get a handle on a plan. Doing this can help you navigate strong feelings, so you can tackle the real-world issues together.
    • Focus on cooperation. While using your individual coping skills is important to help you regulate your own emotions, it’s what you do together to solve financial problems that makes a difference in your relationship quality. Even if you think you have a way to solve a financial problem, it’s crucial to talk it over with your partner and make a joint decision.
    • If you’re having trouble communicating, consider seeking professional help from a therapist and a financial planner.

Use these tips to keep up your relationship health, even in the face of financial difficulty or change. If you want to know more about financial planning or find other useful resources, visit Military OneSource’s Personal Finance section.

Resources

Falconier, M. K., & Epstein, N. B. (2011). Couples experiencing financial strain: What we know and what we can do. Family Relations, 60(3), 303–317. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3729.2011.00650.x

Nelson, R. J., Smith, T. E., Shelton, V. M., & Richards, K. V. (2015). Three interventions for financial therapy: Fostering an examination of financial behaviors and beliefs. Journal of Financial Therapy, 6(1). doi:10.4148/1944-9771.1058

Papp, L. M., Cummings, E. M., & Goeke-Morey, M. C. (2009). For richer, for poorer: Money as a topic of marital conflict in the home. Family Relations, 58(1), 91–103. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3729.2008.00537.x

Ross, D. B., O’Neal, C. W., Arnold, A. L., & Mancini, J. A. (2017). Money matters in marriage: Financial concerns, warmth, and hostility among military couples. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 38(4), 572–581. doi:10.1007/s10834-017-9522-y

Shapiro, M. (2007). Money: A therapeutic tool for couples therapy. Family Process, 46(3), 279–291. doi:10.1111/j.1545-5300.2007.00211.x