Money can be a sensitive topic in dating and marriage. Often cited as a cause of divorce, a conflict about money is usually a symptom of something else. Often the real issue is a lack of constructive communication by partners about what’s important to each of them.
Depending on who you are, talking about money with a partner may be taboo, acceptable, or somewhere in between. In many cultures and families, it is not okay to talk about money. In others, it’s fine to speak openly about it. Regardless of which category you fit into, understanding the source of your attitude can help you address money related concerns more successfully.
How Money Views are Formed and Expressed
Joan: Money as Love
Two unspoken rules Joan learned early from her parents were that it was not okay to ask for money (taboo) but that it was fine to receive it when offered freely, as in her weekly allowance as a child. Even when she was a young single adult her father gave her a monthly check for a year to help with her expenses while she was getting her new business off the ground, which made Joan feel loved.
When dating, Joan wanted the man to treat, as was traditional. Yet, influenced by feminism and thinking this was one of its rules, she felt obliged to offer to pay her share. The guy was supposed to read her mind, since it wasn’t okay to say what she really wanted—because of her don’t-ask-for-money rule. He was supposed to know she didn’t really mean it, was just being polite, and wasn’t a gold digger. If he let her pay, especially on a first date, she felt uncared for and there would be no second date.
Joan was dating with the hope of finding someone to marry. Her good looks and engaging directness attracted men easily. Yet her communication difficulties around money were creating roadblocks. How could men be expected to know what she really wanted?
Allison: Money as Control
Unlike Joan, who associated money with love, Allison viewed it as a source of power.
Allison says she pays for herself on dates because “I don’t want to be controlled.” In fact, she was divorced from a man who’d convinced her to let him support her. But then he’d behaved as though being the breadwinner entitled him to make all the spending and savings decisions. “No way do I want to repeat anything like that,” explains Allison.
Some men and women may think that whoever pays gets to call the shots, whether that means about where they go on a date or what one owes the other in return for his generosity. The anticipated payback could be a second date, physical intimacy, or something else.
Feelings about Money
How people deal with money in a relationship can produce strong feelings. We may feel more loved, less loved, or unloved, depending on whether the person is generous or withholding. Or we may experience our own or our partner’s handling of money as an attempt to gain more power in the relationship.
Or, like some women, we may feel entitled to be supported by a man, whether from cultural conditioning or something else. A couple of middle-aged participants in one of my “Marry with Confidence” workshops for women were living hand to mouth and looking for a husband to support them financially. I felt sad for them because they are heading toward a possible power imbalance in the relationship, and consequently, a building of resentment. I don’t recommend being on either end of such an arrangement. A fulfilling relationship requires that both partners are in it mainly for emotional and spiritual fulfillment, not because of money.
Women who know they can manage okay on their own financially are more able to create a collaborative relationship of two equal partners. It is quite possible for a man to provide financial support with no strings attached, but this is more likely to happen if the woman has her own resources so that she is not truly dependent upon him, because money certainly can convey power.
So if you want to enter a relationship as an equal, do your best to first make yourself self-reliant financially.
What does Money Mean to You?
If you sense a conflict arising around money, be aware of what money represents to you. Is the issue really about a perceived power imbalance or about your feeling unloved? For example, such feeling may arise when you perceive that your partner is withholding money, which you’d like to go toward purchasing a car, flowers, a night on the town, or something else.
If money is too sensitive a topic for the two of you to discuss on your own, seeing a couples therapist or financial planner might help you get past the blockage. Both partners should express their views and hear each other’s. Take a few deep breaths. Say what you want and need calmly and respectfully and hear your partner’s perspective.
Often this type of communication will result in mutual understanding and appreciation, which most likely brings a sense that you care for, appreciate, and love each other, regardless of what compromise or accommodation might result from the discussion.
Joan Breaks her “Don’t Ask” Rule
So what happened to Joan, who was experiencing difficulties about how to deal with money in dating situations? A new man in her life, Barry called to ask her out for a first date. She’d liked his easy-going nature and sincerity, felt comfortable talking to him when they’d met at a singles event a few days earlier.
Joan told him on the phone about her plan to see a play on her own that Saturday night and suggested that he might want to join her. When he agreed, this time Joan, needing clarity, surprised herself by blurting out, “Are you planning to treat?” When Barry said yes, he qualified himself as a mensch, and ten months later, as her husband. They’ve been married for over twenty-five years now.
Learn to communicate about money constructively, first to yourself, perhaps by journaling, and without shame. You’re entitled to all of them, as is your partner to his. And they do not have to be rational.By gaining self-understanding about our own attitudes towards money, we can begin to deal more constructively with financial matters in dating and marriage.
Step by step instructions for communicating about money and other sensitive topics constructively are included in Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love.
Fairness can be a murky concept. It’s fine to keep it in mind, but don’t let it muddy the waters. The main idea is to recognize and discuss your feelings, wants, and needs, to hear those of your partner in order to gain understanding and solutions that fit for both of you.
Note: Names and other identifying details of people mentioned in this article have been changed to protect their privacy.
Marcia Naomi Berger, MSW, LCSW, author of Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You've Always Wanted (New World Library, 2014), is a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in private practice. A former executive director of a family service agency, she previously worked in the fields of child welfare, alcoholism treatment, and psychiatry. She teaches continuing education classes for social workers, psychologists, marriage and family therapists, and counselors. www.marriagemeetings.com