Why Is It So Hard For Couples To Talk About Money — And Their Debt?

Money, and how we spend it, is emotional. Financial therapists could help us talk about it.

Couples fight. Contrary to the platitudes delivered in greeting cards and Hollywood movies, love is not always enough, especially when you combine managing a relationship with the stress of daily life. Living with a partner means being inextricably enmeshed with not only their domestic habits, but their financial ones as well.

How much money a person has matters, as does the amount of their debt, and never more so than when a person is legally yoked to another.

It’s difficult to find rigorous data that shows just how linked debt and marital unhappiness are, but what even the less scientific, small-scale studies and surveys reveal is how much money matters — it’s right up there with sex as a point of contention. And couples are not adept at talking about — or dealing with — their debt, whether it’s been accrued together or individually. Money, and how we spend it, is emotional, and that makes talking about it immediately more complex.

Beth, 31, and her husband, Matt, 34, were married fresh out of college in 2009, and graduated with a combined debt of around $100,000 — 80% of which was Beth’s. They said they discussed their debt before the wedding, but only on a surface level. “We didn't know that we needed to talk about those things. I did not fully understand the depth of how much I owed — I had never sat down and put all of the different loans I had applied for together,” said Beth. “We both just were kind of really naive.” They had both “benefited” from student loans — federal and private — their parents had helped them apply for over the years, without really knowing the nitty-gritty details of things like interest and repayment plans. Beth and her husband both come from a conservative, evangelical background (they met at their evangelical college), and the internalized message was, in her words, “You get married and then you figure it out together.”

“Once we were married, and all of the payments were coming in, I definitely felt shame around it,” said Beth. “[My husband] was trying to get me to communicate, and I would shut down.”

Beth’s mother was diagnosed with cancer when she was 10 years old, and things had been tough growing up. But even without that complication, Beth understood on an intuitive level that her husband’s family were better off. “It's not just the debt,” she said. “You just have totally different experiences with money and finances in your family. I was always aware of that, and that was definitely the bigger issue we’ve had too. You don’t know until after you’re married how that's all going to come up.”

Not knowing how to navigate those conversations is something Amber, 37, can also relate to. She married her husband in 2014, carrying almost $20,000 debt — a mix of student loans and credit card debt — into the union. “The student debt I didn't feel any shame over — I mean, it’s life in America right now,” she said from Ohio, where they live. “But the credit card debt, I definitely felt like, you know, What's wrong with me? Her husband was debt-free except for car payments that Amber describes as “good debt.”

“We talked about it a little bit but probably not as much as we should have,” Amber said. They had a “brief relationship crisis” over how much she owed, but the couple moved on from it. “I felt fine about it until we started talking about it and suddenly it felt like, This is very bad and could be a barrier to our relationship.”

According to a 2012 study about marital financial conflict, “economic pressure, communication issues, and deeper ‘hidden’ issues within marriage are all associated with financial conflict.” In 2019, with global debt at an all-time high and private debt on the rise, financial conflict feels like a crushing inevitability.

Some debt is, of course, required in order to build a credit history, which in turn influences the all-important credit score. Lenders preach responsible borrowing, but billowing personal debt figures suggest not everyone is able to do so. The average American now has some $38,000 in personal debt, according to a 2018 study by financial services company Northwestern Mutual. Personal finance website NerdWallet’s annual analysis of American debt put the average household credit card debt at $6,929. Loan comparison site Lending Tree estimates that Americans owe more than 26% of their annual income, based on Federal Reserve data.

The women I talked to are not alone in feeling shamed or judged for their finances. Even when people (often anonymously) share their “money diaries” and go viral, they tend to inspire strong feelings from readers, and most of them aren’t positive. And whether they know you or not, people tend to have ideas about how couples should spend their money. If strangers on the internet care this much about other strangers’ money habits, how much more daunting is it to disclose and honestly talk about it in an intimate relationship?

A 2018 survey by the American Psychological Association showed that two-thirds of Americans are stressed about the future of the country. People certainly appear to be more prone to anxiety. And while there appears to be increased literacy around mental health, seeking therapy specifically around money is still in its infancy. One institution, the Financial Therapy Association (FTA), wants to change how we talk about money.

Increased incomes and financial savviness might be the way over the problem, but for many couples, financial therapy might be a crucial way through the murkiness.

“What we're really looking at with these financial experiences is trying to work on the emotional charge connected to them,” said Ed Coambs, a marriage and family therapist with a focus on financial therapy who has a practice North Carolina. “We're listening to how people frame their financial lives — good debt, bad debt, how did we get here?” Coambs said he has seen an uptick in clients’ anxiety around money but added, “emotion around money has been present since the beginning of money.”

The work is less about changing our emotions around money than it is being able to recognize and interpret what those emotions mean.

According to Coambs, the urge is to strip emotion from money — to make it, in his words, “an objective object.” But seeing as money is a human invention, it cannot be devoid of human sentiment; if it has value, then it is inherently emotional. And so the work is less about changing our emotions around money than it is being able to recognize and interpret what those emotions mean. Talking about debt and money with intimate partners might never be emotionless, but there are ways to make those conversations more constructive.

Coambs’ path to becoming a therapist didn’t start out as expected — he used to be a firefighter in Texas. “I saw the guys complain about two things,” he said. “Their wives, and money.” In his own youth he remembered how his mom seemed most frustrated with his dad around money, and it inspired him to study personal finance. “I thought if I could just understand money, then everything would work out.”

During the time he completed an MBA and became a certified financial planner, he got married. “And as I tried to talk with my wife about how we should be doing our finances — because in my mind I was the ‘expert’ — I still wasn't able to understand that she still had her own experiences around money that felt very valid to her.” He ended up going back to school to retrain as a therapist, “to figure out how people work, and to help people with their money, from a counseling perspective.”

In his practice, Coambs sees clients who have similar stories to his, and the framework he uses to work with them is an interpretation of attachment theory — that hugely popular theory around hardwired emotional styles. “Something that's very important for me when it comes to dealing with people and money, especially around debt, is to understand their own story around money from their family,” he said. He also takes individuals’ attachment style — “a way of forming intimate relationships and how you see yourself and how you see others, and that has been borne out from very early developmental experiences” — into account.

Amber, the 37-year-old who brought nearly $20,000 in debt to her marriage, had a childhood in which her family was “living paycheck to paycheck.” This was something she had been aware of even as she entered into a relationship with a man who grew up in very different circumstances. “We had very, very different familial relationships with money,” she said. “ I grew up with a single mom, he grew up in a two-parent household. They weren’t well-off or anything, but they certainly didn’t have financial troubles.” Where Amber’s family lived with some precarity, her husband’s family “constantly saved for a rainy day. He saved for future goals.” Cementing their difference in attitudes, her mother-in-law worked in finance.

“[Attachment style] sets an internal map in your mind about whether you're lovable or not, whether people are safe and trustworthy, and what you do in response to that.” Coambs identified four categories: secure attachment, and three insecure attachment types — anxious, avoidant, and disorganized. All partnerships can be any combination of those. “Attachment style is a universal experience, everybody has a style. And as a therapist I'm asking: When it gets to money, how does each person's attachment style get activated?”

Tiffany, a nonprofit worker, and her husband, a software engineer, b0th 34, have spent the majority of their married life in debt, most of it from student loans. They had finally paid off a six-figure amount when a new issue flared up. “My husband had been working really hard for about a decade and said he wanted quit [his] job and take some time to pursue a passion project. We live in New York City; it is a very expensive city, and the thought of going from a relatively comfortable two-income household to a not two-income household in New York City seemed insane to me. Like, why? Why would we do this?” she said.

Tiffany’s background as the daughter of a single mother who often struggled with money reared its head, clashing with her husband’s background, which was affluent enough that his family had a summer beach house. “For the first time in the whole of my existence, I actually felt [financially] comfortable. And I had anxiety about the idea of going from being comfortable to struggling,” she said. “While we were heads down, paying off the debt, we were super aligned on finances and working towards this goal. It was once we paid off it that we were like, Now what do we do?"

"When it gets to money, how does each person's attachment style get activated?”

After a several conversations that “ended with one or both of us in tears,” they decided on therapy specifically to tackle their financial issues. “We've been married for 12 years, and this was the first time that we were really struggling just to communicate with each other. We needed to talk to somebody who could help us see each other's point of view and try to work on what our compromise is going to be.” They spoke to friends, who gave them recommendations, and they chose their counselor in New York specifically because of her specialization. “She actually specializes in career transitions, usually with people about to retire, or stay-at-home parents, and we are working towards what will eventually be, for all intents and purposes, a career transition.”

The changes happening in Beth’s life were more personal, and she felt some responsibility toward her husband as a result when they wed right after college. “I knew before we got married that [my mother] was going to die, and probably not very far in the future. And I felt like I’d had a long time to think about this, and about my debt and how hard life can be — and he’d never had to experience anything like that.”

Beth’s anxiety around money manifested physically — she and her husband had been married, been bereaved, and moved across the country in a very short time span. And then there was the matter of all their debt. “We knew it would be hard and we sold a lot of our belongings, and I thought we’d just make it through that hard six months and then be okay,” she said. “But it just...turned out to be so much harder than I expected. That constant barrage of stress that made it so difficult for us to communicate in a healthy way.”

They moved into a house and had a rotating door of roommates to cope with costs. At one point, they were holding down five jobs between the two of them, and still weren’t able to keep the lights on. “One day I came home from working an early shift at work and I realized the electricity had been turned off. Our roommate came in to where my husband and I were talking and panicking, and she said, ‘It seems like you're having a panic attack right now.’ And I had only ever felt that like a couple of other times and it was usually related to PTSD around my mom's illness and death.” Beth had had some counseling through the grief process, and said, “I started thinking through how that has affected our financial lives, and of course there were very clear connections between both experiences.”

Romantic partnerships involve people who have had different personal relationships with money, whether those differences have to do with race, gender, class, or other sociocultural categories. “We psychologically merge with our intimate partners to varying degrees, and see them as an extension of ourselves — assuming they see things the same way that we do,” said Coambs. But that is not always the case.

“A part of what's happening in financial therapy is bringing cognition and thought to the emotional experiences from childhood,” says Coambs. He recalled one client who grew up with little, married a more affluent partner, and whose combined income put them somewhere in the middle of their individual childhood statuses. “Their starting templates were very different, and now as a married couple, they have reasonable financial security ... but there's a cross-class dynamic in their marriage where they're working from old money memories about how to conduct themselves. Neither of their money memories are reflective of their current state.”

For Tiffany and her husband, therapy further revealed how divergent their money maps were. “We definitely have — and still do — different money approaches. I think because they had comfortable and lean times when he was growing up, he's always been very frugal. He's definitely a saver and I'm more of a spender.” She admits to going “a little buckwild once I paid off my student loans.” Financial therapy gave them the language and tools to talk to each other about their future goals. “It took probably two or three sessions where we left each session with puffy eyes, because there was anger, frustration, and resentment. Once we got it all out, it became, How can we move forward?”

“We psychologically merge with our intimate partners to varying degrees, and see them as an extension of ourselves.”

“My husband never told me that he was looking at paying off the student loans as the end goal, the finish line. Whereas I'm was looking at it like, This is just one lap in my long time race.” She laughs. “He realized that he kind of just dropped it on me.” They now have a two-year plan in place, at which point they will reevaluate. “Our finish lines are now the same — [therapy] was really helpful to get aligned.”

Rachel, a 32-year-old writer in Kansas, decided on preemptive financial therapy after her husband returned to work after a run of unemployment and poor-paying jobs. “It had been a lot of stress on him, because he puts a lot of identity into his work ethic, so being unemployed for the first time in his adult life was really tough,” she said. They had also gotten into some credit card debt during the period of unemployment and were still recovering, but she described herself and her husband as similarly well-aligned on their financial priorities, even if they weren’t especially financially literate.

Luckily, she wasn’t a stranger to therapy and she reckoned it could work as a type of relationship maintenance for her and her husband. “When I go to see my counselor, it's more preventative than anything — a checkup to make sure I'm still in good mental health. So that was the spirit of it, just to make sure that we were communicating, and if there was anything that might become an issue in the future.” During the session, they even talked about what a return to the workforce would mean for dividing household chores — something he had been doing more of.

“I think creating that space where you've got a mediator to talk about it, so you don’t falling into bickering instead of talking about the real issue, is key. [The therapist] helps to keep the conversation focused.”

For all of the people I spoke to, financial therapy started with frequent visits — usually as a response to a looming crisis. But they all reported lasting benefits, mostly in the form of clearer, more open communication. Everyone agreed financial therapy was a good idea; they want to keep it up in the future, as their circumstances change.

The trick to effective financial therapy, Coambs says, is not necessarily about changing behavior. Rather, it’s seeking a better understanding of our emotions around money. “We can have a very functionalistic attitude towards money — ‘only buy the necessities’ — but what is the place of pleasure in money?” he asked. “We can't stop the emotional process from happening, so the more we can understand when we feel shame, guilt, and anger when it comes to money, [the better].” ●

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