It’s time to pay a joint bill and surprise! There are expenses that add up to a whole lot more than expected. A fight breaks out. One partner gets defensive, the other gets accusatory. Then accusations and blame ping pong back and forth. One partner goes to far and says something exceptionally mean. The other goes quiet, glares for a moment and leaves the room. Sound familiar?
As a financial and couples therapist I have seen some version of this dynamic play out time and time again. It doesn’t surprise me when I hear about it, and sometimes it gets eerie how the same thing happens for so many and I wonder to myself, have they all memorized some secret script that gets passed around? Because this is all too common.
Truly, I know that it isn’t a secret script, it’s two people who love each other and also have a innate drive to survive. They’re activated in a survival response, and seeing each other as a threat to their own survival in that moment. The sting of disconnection, the pain of hearing your partner speak down to you, the instinct to get away from pain or take that pain out on the nearest person to you. All of this happens so quickly and outside of awareness, it doesn’t even register that it’s happening before it’s too late. Now you’re lost to each other.
Finances can mean many things to different people. The most fundamental commonality is that we’ve all invested in a system that we’ve socially agreed to which moves valued goods and services with exchange. Money is symbolic and yet so practically necessary that it becomes a noun and a fixed object connected to our will and our aggressive or protective drives to live on.
In combination, our attachment systems are wired to detect disconnection with those we rely on most and register it as a danger cue. To become disconnected in a chaotic world that may have enemies in it, is a precarious place to be. You don’t understand me, I don’t understand you, we are now too far away to help. Imagine in a crisis how important accurate communication becomes. You go left when I said right, I pick it up when you said don’t touch; when the stakes are high we can make a final and fatal error. This may not logically be the true stakes when having a conversation about a document with our partner in the safety of our own home, but it feels like it is and becomes that in our inner world.
Talking about concerns about money doesn’t have to be so difficult, with practice, patience and a deeper prepared understanding that it may be a hot topic. Skills for de-esclalation, self awareness, emotionally supporting ourselves and our partner can shift the worst financial conflict into a productive, loving and dare I say bonding experience.
Things you can try:
a. Take a pause, a breath and think of the kindest thing you could say in the moment, then say it
b. Offer to revisit the conversation in 20-30 minutes after a break – then go for a walk or find a way to self-soothe and follow through.
c. Ask your partner to clarify what they just said, sometimes that can break the pattern of conflict enough to come back to connection
- Self – Awareness
a. Recognize that you are in a survival state and doing something that is harming your partner and making the conversation unproductive
b. Take a moment to ask yourself what your intention is and then share that
c. Think back to what started the argument and what problem you’re trying to solve. Refocus on that
- Emotional Support
a. Put your oxygen mask on first, breathe deeply, ground your body by focusing on the parts connected to physical support. Feel the solidness of your body and connect to your emotions. Label them as valid and important then share out loud in an “I feel___” statement.
b. Support your partner’s emotions by offering understanding without arguing with them. It doesn’t typically work to try to talk someone out of feeling the way they do, emotions move when supported.
c. Take a moment to see both sides without bias. Notice and observe you both have important input to this problem. Support your relationship by choosing to protect it and speak on your relationship’s behalf. Mention how you can see that even though you’re having a hard time talking it out, you can recognize both of you have important things to say. Offer to take turns.
You two don’t have to agree, but you can still do the important work to find alignment, make agreements and negotiate a future change and financial plan together. Remember what’s important is more than survival. And if you find you still get stuck despite your love for each other and best efforts, there are couples therapists (like me!) out there who can help. A couples financial therapist can help you uncover further ideas, biases and values about money that may also be contributing to the misalignment and any self-limiting behaviors between you.