COUPLES + MONEY

WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT MONEY | September 7th 2008
With the credit crunch comes the couple crunch. As belts tighten, tempers flare, and money's too tight not to mention. Joanna Moorhead asks couples and counsellors what money says about relationships ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Autumn 2008

There comes a moment during a couple counselling session with Donna Laikind when the clients tend to swallow hard and wish they were somewhere else. It is the moment when she touches on the most intimate aspects of their shared life. She goes further, she readily admits, than most have bargained for. "My questions are so probing, and touch on areas of their life that are so private," she says, "that it's often a real shock to them that I'm daring to ask them."

You could be forgiven for thinking that she is talking about sex. But, according to Laikind--a therapist in private practice in Manhattan and Connecticut, and a member of the faculty of NYU medical school--the questions she focuses on at this point cut deeper and are even more exposing than sexual ones could be. They're about money: and they pull no punches. "I ask them, how much do you earn? How do you organise your money? Who makes decisions about how the money is spent in your house? I even ask them to tell me about all their bank accounts--every single one."

Are they surprised? "You bet they are. Some of these questions are things a couple have never discussed before. You get people who don't know how much their partner earns. You get people who admit they have accounts their partner doesn't know about." And most importantly, she says, you get a lot of inside-track information about what's really going on in this relationship. Laikind believes a couple's financial arrangements are a window into their world--perhaps the best there is. How they organise their finances, whether they fight over money, how they prioritise spending, and whether they have any financial secrets from one another, are all indicators of the health of the relationship, and the balance of power within it.

But if money is a metaphor, it's a lot more besides. No relationship, after all, is immune to market economics. If a couple's finances are rocky, or crumbling, there comes a point when the firewall starts to buckle. There is no relationship that doesn't have a breaking point somewhere--and money can break most things. So, with the threat of recession in the air, marriage-guidance therapists in Europe and America are bracing themselves for increased demand--unless, that is, counselling itself becomes a victim of panic cost-cutting.

Mo Kurimbokus, a Relate counsellor in Britain, is one of many who expect the storm clouds gathering over the markets to cast a shadow over relationships. He has listened to hundreds of couples picking over the bones of their relationships. If it has taught him anything at all, he says, it's taught him that what makes a couple strong is the ability to communicate and--crucially--to negotiate. Life changes all the time: marriage and relationships change all the time. The people who sail through are those who can express themselves and articulate their needs, as well as being able to make their own adjustments and, just as crucially, tolerate change in others.

When money problems become more of an issue in a relationship, stronger couples are able to ride out the storm by putting their biggest asset--their ability to talk and to adapt together--to good effect. Weaker couples, on the other hand, face a double whammy: not only do they lack the skills and habits to carry them through choppy seas, but a financial crisis is likely to cause further fractures in their already-cracked battlements. Economic instability, for an unstable relationship, can be very bad news indeed.

The depressing truth is that you really don't have to be googling divorce lawyers to get a flavour of the damage economic turmoil can cause. After 20 years and counting I can testify that there are plenty of scary moments in a marriage: but one of the most white-knuckle of them all--a moment when you're at the top of the rollercoaster staring down into the abyss--is the moment when, after weeks or even months of swallowing the gnawing worry that all isn't quite right in your balance sheet, you finally pluck up the courage to share your concerns with your partner. What you need--what you desperately crave--is reassurance; but what you're much more likely to see is that the fear in your partner's face matches your own. Mostly, marriage thrives on one partner being strong and confident when the other feels weak and scared. That's less likely to happen with fiscal than with emotional or other woes: it's one of the reasons, perhaps, why the last person many individuals talk to when they need to talk about money is their beloved. I was once surprised to find, while researching an article about couples with serious debts, that none of those I interviewed had shared their thoughts with their partner; thoughts they were happy to share with a total stranger, and a fair number of readers.

There's another reason why couples don't share money worries: a reason Donna Laikind would immediately understand. When you come clean about the shortcomings of your bank balance, you're often coming clean about everything else in your life, warts and all. So my friend Eddie, who put on a suit and went out to work rather than tell his wife of 15 years that he'd been made redundant, wasn't really avoiding telling her that he had no income. He was avoiding telling her something more fundamental: I've failed you. You thought you'd married a provider, but it's not worked out. I've not been able to give you what you wanted. You're not in the marriage you thought you were. I'm not at all sure who I am and what my life is about any more. Think about it that way, and you see why Eddie opted to sit on a park bench in his suit.

* * * * *

But it's not all tragedy and tears. Laikind believes we can see our financial arrangements as an interactive barometer to help us first understand our behaviour patterns, then subtly but crucially adjust them. "Just talking about how and why you organise your money the way you do can be enormously enlightening," Laikind says. "And it doesn't matter whether you're a millionaire or a pauper--there will definitely be issues that you'll benefit as a couple from discussing."

What kinds of issues might arise? The root issue, for most, is power: who holds it, and who's getting what they want out of the relationship and who isn't. Other times, it's about seeing the situation for what it really is--an issue around money may be obscuring a deeper truth about a relationship. Or, money issues might remove blinkers to patterns that emanate from childhood, and from the way the person's parents conducted their relationship.

"There was one couple I counselled," Laikind says. "He was a big-shot in a software company, and then he lost his job. And she had a hobby in interior decorating, and so she started doing more of it, and in no time at all she'd built up a business. It made lots of money, so their financial worries were over--but their relationship worries weren't, because the turnaround emasculated him. It affected how he felt about himself, it affected their sex life. They had a good lifestyle, but the husband could barely look his wife in the eye because he felt a failure. And it wasn't just the man who felt shamed. The wife, as proud as she was of her business accomplishments, was shamed also, because her mother had told her to find a man who would ‘provide for her' and the fairy tales exhort us to find a prince who will ‘save you'."

Mo Kurimbokus, too, can reel off tales where what seemed like a conversation about a couple's finances proved to hold the key to deeper truths. "I had one couple who came to me in which the man earned a lot more than the woman and they were putting the same amount of money into a joint account. But after they'd paid their bills separately, he still had enough money for lots of holidays and weekends away, whereas she didn't. And they were arguing over the fact that he said they weren't spending enough time together--but what it was really about was the fact that he wanted her to give up her job and be around more, so they could travel more and be together more. The problem there, though, was that she didn't want to give up her job--she loved it, even though it didn't bring in lots of money. He wanted more of her than she was prepared to give, and it was being played out as a financial battle."

Kurimbokus says he is seeing more and more couples who organise their finances entirely separately, and who each have their own bank accounts and their own responsibilities--he may pay for the holidays, she for the groceries. This model can be enriching and empowering: like the changing role of women it mirrors, and the fact that more and more couples consist of two earners, it can reflect a more equal and sharing partnership that's, yes, more complicated--but also richer and, ultimately, more fulfilling.

Sometimes, though, there are issues, like the one confronting Anne and her husband Tom. They have never even mixed their loose change in the same tin, let alone had a joint bank account. "Keeping my individuality has always been fundamental--I've never changed my name, or worn a wedding ring, although we've been married for 20 years," says Anne, a likeable woman in her mid-40s. "And Tom very much lives his own life too. We're not one of those ‘joined at the hip' couples, and we'd never want to be--we both enjoy our own space, although I think we're very loyal to one another and we're very committed to raising our three children together."

But raising three children in London is expensive, even when both partners are earners--and as she is freelance, Anne has found herself worrying more and more about money over the past few months. "I tend to worry on my own about it," she says. "Because we've never mixed our money, it feels like it's my problem that I'm worrying about paying my bills, whereas in fact it's really our problem as a couple."

This is interesting given Laikind's analysis, because she believes that, although most models of financial management can work in a relationship, it's a bad idea to set any model in stone--flexibility is required. For Anne and Tom, the time has probably come to review the model: and, as usual, a lot more than just money is involved. Perhaps, Laikind suggests, Anne feels lonely in her relationship--being semi-detached has suited her hitherto, but now that her children are growing up she may be more in need of an involving and supportive relationship. "And the truth is", Anne says ruefully, combing her fingers through her hair in a gesture almost of defeat, "that I don't think Tom would want to have that conversation. He's not at the same point in his life; he's not looking for us to be closer, he quite likes us being semi-detached. The model that used to suit us both still suits him--it's me who's changed."

Other friends reveal what Laikind says are extremely common patterns of behaviour: differences over whether to save or spend. One friend, Simon, speaks for many when he admits to being a "tight git", especially in comparison with his wife Freda's "bling spending sprees". Chat to him for a while, and it's clear that--as usual--it's less about the actual money being spent, and more the philosophy that lies behind it.

"Freda likes a bottle of Sancerre, whereas for me cut-price Pinot is just fine," he says. "She thinks I'm being stingy and says to me look, it's only £3 a night more--what does that matter? And I say yes, but the £3s add up."

The problem for couples like Simon and Freda, Laikind says, is to stop resentment creeping in, which can be corrosive and hard to shift. At the moment Simon thinks things aren't too bad, but he doesn't underestimate the damage money could do to them. "One thing I don't like is that Freda's spending sprees invariably push me further into the spendthrift corner--I feel I can't spend any money because she's spending so much, and I do feel a bit resentful about that."

He gets more pensive. "Freda and I have been together since we were 14--we were childhood sweethearts," he says. "And looking back, the differences in our attitudes to money have always been the biggest rift between us. If anything was going to split us up, it would be this."

* * * * *

The most stable couple I know--or the couple I perceive as being most stable--have a very straightforward approach to their finances. Sophie and Mark, who are in their late 30s, are unusual in that he's an earner and she's not: but all his money is paid into a joint bank account, from where Sophie deals with all the bills and all the household finances. "Mark definitely sees his money as our money, and I feel exactly the same," says Sophie. But there are a few niggles; she'd like to be a bit less cautious, while he's ultra-careful. "Mark always wants to have a year's school fees in the bank," Sophie says, "whereas I feel we've got to enjoy life a bit now and spend on things like family holidays."

The fact that it's Sophie, not Mark, who does the financial admin reveals a fairly widespread generation gap between couples now in their 60s and 70s, and couples today--and, as ever, it's a difference that is played out in the fine print of their relationship with one another. Ted and Donna, for example, are now in their 70s: they were in the same mould as Sophie and Mark in that Ted was the sole earner, but he was also the money-manager. Donna admits to living most of her life without having much idea of what a mortgage is, and she has never had to deal with investments or had an appointment with a financial adviser. Their relationship was run along similar lines: Ted called the shots, and Donna ran the home front. Today's couples, even where they're in the traditional model of male earner and female homemaker, tend to have a more even balance of power, thanks to the huge changes that have come about in women's lives over the last half-century.

For some people, merging your finances once you're a couple is as much a part of being united as the marriage vows themselves. Helene, a Norwegian friend, thinks of keeping finances in any way separate as "the English way", and finds it "extremely odd", even when it's only part of a couple's income that's in separate accounts. "I feel very uncomfortable about the idea of not having all my money in one account with James, my husband," she says. "As far as I'm concerned we're a going concern, we're like a business--and you wouldn't get a business with partners who operated separate bank accounts, would you? If I found out James had a separate account I didn't know about, it would be like finding out he was having an affair. I'd feel betrayed."

Some separate accounts, of course, are more innocent than others. Separate and secretive ones have always suited partners having extramarital relationships, which almost always involve further expenditure. "Finding out that Oliver was spending money on another woman was almost as difficult to take as finding out he was having sex with her," says my friend Milly. "He was spending what was mine as well as his on someone else, and that was extremely hurtful."

In fact, Oliver's and Milly's marriage was all but over before his infidelity. Milly now acknowledges this and, interestingly, can trace it through financial as well as emotional events. "I got to the stage where I started to think of our relationship in solely fiscal terms--how much was it going to cost to split up, how was I going to be able to get the money I needed from him once we'd parted, and so on," says Milly. "Once you start thinking of your relationship in those terms, with no feelings at all for the other person beyond their bank balance, you know it's over."

For many couples, though, it's quite different. Finances can be a launchpad to a better relationship, better communication. "It's a way to get a handle on what's going on," says Donna Laikind. "We could be talking about sex, we could be talking about aspirations, we could be talking about attitudes to raising children. Money is just another way into a relationship, but in my experience, it's an extremely good way in."

Names and some other details have been changed.

Photo credit: Popping the question / lith. & pub. by Sarony & Major, Graphic Arts/Library of Congress via pingnews (top); didbygraham/flickr

(Joanna Moorhead writes for the Guardian. She is married with four children.)