Money has a way of infecting how you feel about your partner, treat them, and ultimately, love them. After a prolonged period of commitment, when unproductive conflicting co-money management techniques have been at play, an emotional debt grows as large as the financial work that is deficit in your partnership. The denials, repressions, and resentments eventually cause an irreversible rupture. You love the person still, but no longer believe that you can work through your problems together. The issues are too deep. When you leave a tumor untreated, it grows and one day bursts.
In America, 40–50% of all marriages end in divorce. When we try again with a different person, 60–67% end in divorce. Third marriages? 70–73% failure rate.
“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” — Albert Einstein
Arguments about money are tricky because they are never about the money. There are deeper needs and values being unmet. If we want to increase our chances of being successful in our relationships, we must replace the faulty underlying principles of how we financially show love to our partner with new ones. Love isn’t dead.
1. Pre-frame your money conversations.
Empathy is a muscle that needs to be exercised every day, especially with the ones you love most. The word empathy derives from the ancient Greek root of “pathos,” or “passion” and “suffering.” Before you even say a word, you can come from a place of emotionally sharing in the other person’s struggles to elicit a constructive reaction. Not by being sympathetic, but empathetic.
Sympathy is nice. With sympathy, you feel compassion for someone else’s difficulties. Empathy, however, is connection-building. In empathy, you put yourself in their shoes and walk with them.
We often do the opposite, don’t we? We treat the most important people with the least consideration because we mistakenly think we can — our partners, our mothers, brothers, and kids. It’s our form of self-sabotage. To break the cycle, set the stage for an empathetic money conversation. When you’re not upset about money, make an appointment with your partner for a time to work through your specific money concerns and goals. Schedule the talk.
Frame the invitation from a place of wanting to help a we that’s bigger and more important than you alone. When you’re most joyful with your significant other, say:
“I love you. I love our times together. I want to share something with you that’s been weighing on me.”
“I feel like we’ve been walking down different financial paths for a while now and I’m very worried that this will undermine the future of us. I want us to work out. Can we talk about our money issues together? I need your help in coming up with solutions.”
Let yourself be vulnerable by initiating the invitation. Trust that this will come across as love, not weakness. If your partner responds with scorn, physically leave the situation until calm returns. Show them what will and will not be tolerated. When you come from empathy, your partner’s financial struggle is felt by you as your struggle. Avoid accidentally fighting about money. Stop the rant, silent or otherwise. They’ll feel the shift in you and answer in kind.
2. Recognize that the current value of your relationship is determined by your expectations of the future.
“Live out of your imagination, not your history.” — Steven Covey
We often miss the simple fact that universal principles in life impact the outcome of everything, including our shared finances. In finance, we learn that the “price” of what we pay for something today is simply a best effort at capturing the future value of that good. When we buy a house, how much we’re willing to pay for such a long term asset is set by how valuable we believe the home will be in the future given its location, its size, and the shape that it’s in. When we buy shares of a company, the share price today is never determined by the company’s actual earnings in the future, but our expectations of what future earnings will look like. If we feel that the future looks bright, we’re more willing to pay a high price for the good. If we feel that future performance will be poor, we want to pay less today.
And so goes how we invest in our partnership’s financial future. How are you investing in it? When you spend your money like the future of your relationship may be non-existent, you subconsciously communicate something bleak and despairing to your partner — the heck with tomorrow. When you sock away savings, however small, your behavior begins to make space for your happiness later. Managing your money as though there is a bright future sends a powerful message. The earnings you set aside feel less like waste and more like hope. You can’t buy your partner happiness, anyway.
Keep a physical ledger or simple chart; you can measure how much future you’re socking away financially. Your current financial state is not nearly as important as the one you’re planning to create together. Your expectations shape your future, so have great expectations for your relationship. Let it show with how you handle your money.
3. Build the quality of your financial life, not quantity.
From the moment we buy a diamond ring to “show” our love (the result of a highly successful marketing campaign in the 1900s by DeBeers), create our wedding registry, and throw an expensive wedding, we begin the poisonous habit of spending our money on what other people view as important over what we actually value.
Less shared crap is more in your relationship. According to Greg McKeown in Essentialism, we must say “no” to the “trivial many” so we can focus on the “essential few.” Ask yourself a few questions. Do you even like diamonds, or are you more of a moonstone girl, and always have been? Can you share an unforgettable night with your loved ones by making your vows honest and true? Will the $2,000 wedding cake make it special? I’ve been to a hundred weddings by now, and the only ones I remember are the ones where the couples made me cry. The others have gone poof.
Articulate what you love that is unique to you as a couple, and invest in those few things. Be authentic about it.
“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” — Oscar Wilde
Spending your co-earned money on low-value items becomes a routine that self-reinforces. You come to value things over higher quality ways of showing your love, and your love suffers. Go the extra mile in cooking a dinner for date night. Write them a note before she wakes up in the morning. Draw them a picture of how they make you feel. They’ll remember what you do for them more than the details of the bracelet you bought her at a department store for their birthday.
4. Let specific outcomes go.
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
— Maya Angelou
It’s a great disservice to everyone, especially to the younger set, that we tell stories of great entrepreneurs as though their successes were effortless. They were fraught with continuous financial and personal failure. I promise you that in your financial development, you will fail — by yourself, and with your partner. Henry Ford blew up in spectacular, public fashion twice before hitting his first commercial success with the Model A automobile. Steve Jobs was fired from his own company and made the NeXT computer. If you refuse to embrace failure as part of your partnership’s financial learning curve, you invite shame into your house and ask it to stay. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
Your co-financial life is under construction. Expect delays, and learn as much as you can along the way. Our efforts will not always be met with success. That’s what investing is. We take a risk and do our best for the sake of us. You already know that your life is much more than what it adds up to in dollars or how it looks on a spreadsheet. Your days are made meaningful in ways that our economy has no currency for measuring…the grace of your soul, the size of your heart, and your persistence of hope.
Keep paying it forward, and root for your relationship in every way. Your love is worth saving.
Jane Hwangbo is a former investment analyst and portfolio manager who founded Money School with Jane, a personal coaching program designed to change the way individuals see and interact with money. Visit her website or find her on Twitter.
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