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It may sound strange to think about having an ‘emotional relationship’ with something as practical as money, but it can actually be a highly effective way of understanding your feelings and behaviours.

In truth, we tend to have ‘emotional relationships’ with many things - with work, with sleep, with the sports team we support (that last one may be less surprising). As emotional beings, how we feel about things tends to define how we interact with them. Our feelings allow us project our values onto subjects, and in doing so, understand how we relate to them as individuals.

What are the most common relationships people have with money?

We are all familiar with some of the most common ways in which we characterise thinking about money. Some people are very careful: unwilling to spend money on anything unless they absolutely have to and squirrelling away the rest. Some people love to spend money, and will happily spend every last penny - even when it might be a good idea to slow down a little and keep some in reserve. Arguably, most people are somewhere in the middle, ocassionally spending lots or treating themselves, sometimes saving.

How do people develop these different relationships with money? As with most questions on the subject of emotions, the answer can often be traced back to our upbringing. We tend to develop our ideas around money from the people we spend time with growing up - usually our parents or caregivers.

In some cases, that can mean we emulate them. If someone’s parents were very careful with money, they might take this as a lesson and do the same thing. However, it can also mean we do the opposite. Sometimes, people try to provide their own children with what they never had, so someone who grew up with very strict, thrifty parents might lavish their children with gifts - allowing them to experience the luxury they never had.

How can this be a challenge in relationships?

The most obvious difficulty experienced is when partners have contrasting relationships to money. If one wants to spend while the other wants to save, the room for conflict is created.

In some relationships, the difference is quite nuanced. Sometimes it isn’t as simple as spend or save (or save and spend). One partner might be happy spending, but only on big-ticket items like holidays, cars or furniture, whereas the other partner might prefer spending regular, moderate amounts on smaller things like meals out or presents. On the other hand, both individuals might be savers, but enjoy saving for different things - one partner might have retirement in mind, whereas the other might want to spend it all on a house.

It can be particularly challenging with polarised attitudes towards money - where one person spends so much that they’re at risk of running out of money, or the other isn’t willing to spend on anything other than the most essential stuff, and can be difficult or ill-tempered when asked to do otherwise. In cases like this, the risk of conflict is much higher.

Understanding emotional relationships with money

On a deeper level, we all have our own emotional relationship with money as individuals, yet are often wholly unaware of this and of our ability to (mis-)use this as ‘emotional currency’ within our relationships. We project meaning onto money effectively ‘loading’ it with feelings around security, control and independence.

For example, conflict can arise if one partner values their independence highly and channels this through their need for financial freedom, whereas the other partner wants to pool resources, and feels more comfortable feeling financially co-dependent or even dependent. Some people need to feel in control of every single transaction whereas their partner may be completely disinterested in this level of detail.

Similarly, relational significance can come into play where we ‘act’ out roles, emulating parent-child dynamics with one as ‘provider’ and the one ‘provided for’. The role of ‘provider’ can have significant emotional implications for care giving and vice versa, thus feeding into our sense of emotional security.

Where debt is an issue within a relationship, it is more likely that problems will arise in the relationship with hidden debt if partners have different approaches to managing money and different values around money. Hiding debt from a partner can often have similar effects on a relationship to that of an affair, because issues of trust and betrayal may surface.

Conflict about money is a particularly common challenge in relationships, and one we see regularly in counselling sessions at Relate. Money can be a highly emotive subject: it speaks to our ability to survive, our ability to live a stable life and our ability to plan long term. Conflict about money can carry deeper meanings for us as it taps into different values and emotional approaches, and not just about a lack of money.

How can you approach this challenge?

This is where having an understanding of your emotional relationship with money can be particularly helpful. When you think of it in these terms, you can approach the subject as you would any other relationship issue - through making an effort to empathise with each other’s feelings.

By talking honestly about how you feel about money, what money means to you and taking the time to examine together where these feelings might be coming from - you can gain a genuine understanding of one another’s perspective. From there, you begin to move towards making decisions that take both of these perspectives into account.

With this in mind, the way to begin a conversation about money is the same way to begin any other relationship conversation - by sitting down at a time when you’re both feeling ready to talk (and there are no distractions) and making an honest effort to understand each other without judgement. For ideas on how to have this kind of conversation without it turning into an argument, you may like to read our five communication tips to try with your partner.

Once you’ve established this understanding, you may then find you’re able to approach the practical sides of this discussion - how to budget together, which items to prioritise, access to the joint account and so on - in a much calmer manner, exploring each other’s feelings about money. Indeed, should you manage your finances independently, mix individual and joint accounts or just have a single joint account?

For more information on this side of things, read our article on how to talk about money.

How we can help

You may find that coming in for counselling is a good way of kicking off your conversation about money. You can be assured that your counsellor won’t take sides or tell you what to do - they’ll simply listen and try to help you gain a deeper insight into your behaviours and a better understanding of each other’s perspectives.

Counselling can also be helpful in cases where you feel your differences on the matter create particular challenges. As mentioned earlier, when people have polarised ideas, there can be room for a lot of conflict. You may find it’s easier to get your conversation going with a little outside help.

You can talk to a counsellor for free via our Live Chat service. This is a great way of having a ‘taster’ session and deciding whether further counselling would benefit you.

Marriage Care

Our partners at Marriage Care run sessions which help couples prepare for marriage. Find out more about their FOCCUS programme.