Money Conflicts and Lasting Relationships

This is another one of those posts where I think some of you may read the title and think, “Oh great, now he is saying _______ affects lasting relationships. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that.”  Okay, be honest, did you think something like that when you saw the topic was money’s effect on relationship satisfaction.  I don’t blame you.  But hopefully you also thought there must be something more to it than the obvious. And there is!

I was talking with a friend of mine today and he said that he and his wife have learned how to “live poor.”  Though it’s unfortunate that they don’t have money to do some of the things they would like to do, I still like many things about his statement.  First, my friends are not expecting manna from heaven to fall, paying their credit cards. They know if they rack up large credit card bills they are going to have to pay them off.  This kind of responsibility seems sorely lacking these days. Another thing I like about his comment is that it is clear that they are struggling with money together.  It is not him vs. her.  It is them vs. the world.  He spoke affectionately about his wife and clearly separated his feelings for her from his concern for living poor.

Couples do not always report that money is the most frequent cause of conflict. When couples have children, often children and chores are more common causes of conflict. However, even when it is not the most frequent cause, conflict over money has been shown to be qualitatively different than conflict over other issues.

Lauren Papp, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, and her colleagues have identified several things that make financial conflict especially problematic.  One is that couples report that conflicts over money last longer and are more recurring than conflicts over other issues.  Both partners tend to report that rather than compromising or finding a solution, they often decide to discuss the issue at a later time.  Conflicts over money also seem to be associated with different behaviors than normal disagreements. Financial conflicts result in more angry behavior from the husband and more depressed behavior from both partners than conflicts over other issues. And then, finally, both partners indicate that money conflicts are more important to their relationship than conflicts over other issues.

All this news is not very encouraging. Conflicts over money seem to last a long time, involve rehashing of past arguments, cause angry and depressive behavior, and be very important to the relationship.  It would be more encouraging if the conflicts that couples rate as most important to their relationship were short, rare, and easily solved.  But those of us living in the real world know that’s not how it happens.

So, what’s the take-home message?  Be aware of how money conflicts differ from other conflicts.  If you find that money conflicts are lasting a long time perhaps put a time limit on them, and allocate time at the end specifically to coming to a resolution. And of course, work to keep angry and depressed behavior in check.  These things are all easier said than done, no doubt. Nonetheless, they are worthwhile enough to justify the extra effort they require. Remember, when it comes to money worries, it is not you vs. your partner. It is you two, as a couple, vs. the world.

In case you are interested…

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, 91–103.

About Alan Strathman

Alan has spent 24 years as a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. He is the founder of HelpingRelationshipsLast.com and contributes content regularly through blog posts and e-books that communicates the findings of psychological research on relationships. If you would like more information about Alan, please visit alanstrathman.com.