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Why Some People Don’t Talk About Money With Their Partner

People who are stressed about their finances are often wary of talking about money with their romantic partners, even though it may be beneficial to their relationship, new research finds.

People worried about bills, feeling overwhelmed about overspending or concerned about money management may expect a “money talk” to lead to an argument, so they avoid bringing up the topic, according to a report from researchers at Cornell University and Yale University, published this month in The Journal of Consumer Psychology. Yet prior research has found that communicating about money helps couples spend more responsibly and better manage their debt.

“They anticipate conflict, so they’re choosing not to have these conversations at all,” said Emily Garbinsky, associate professor of marketing and management communication at Cornell’s business school and one of the study’s authors.

Why is it so difficult for some people to talk about money with their partners in the first place?

Aja Evans, a financial therapist in New York, said people may feel ashamed that they are having money troubles. They may worry that talking about such things with their partner will hurt their relationship. (Financial therapists aim to help clients understand how their emotions and beliefs about money can affect their financial behavior.)

“It’s a defense mechanism,” she said. “But with financial issues, the more you avoid it, the worse it gets.”

Megan R. Ford, a faculty member and financial therapist at the University of Georgia, said people from families that struggled financially or that didn’t encourage talking about money might lack good models for how to have productive conversations about finances.

“We’re each bringing our own money baggage into a relationship,” she said. “Sometimes it’s a handbag. Sometimes it’s three large suitcases.”

But the more people avoid financial conversations, Dr. Ford added in an email, the more they lose out on opportunities to better understand themselves and their partners.

Brad Klontz, a psychologist and financial planner, said couples at some point typically had “the conversation” about future plans, including whether to have children. “But I don’t think people have that conversation about money,” he said. He likes to prompt clients to reflect on questions that can help them home in on the source of their attitudes, such as, “What are my top three financial goals?” and “What are my most painful and joyful memories about money?”

When it comes to managing money, opposites often attract, said Scott Rick, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Michigan’s business school, and the author of “Tightwads and Spendthrifts: Navigating the Money Minefield in Real Relationships.”

Someone who typically operates on a strict budget may initially be enamored of a partner who is less fiscally restrained. “It can be charming at first,” Dr. Rick said, “especially for a tightwad who is wowed by a carefree spendthrift.”

Over the long term, however, what’s initially fascinating can become irritating, especially if the couple have children and must budget for their needs as well as their own. But in general, each partner can balance out the other’s more extreme tendencies. Dr. Rick said that while he was more willing to splurge, his wife was more cautious about spending.

“I’m married to a tightwad,” he said, and it works out great, he said, because he and his wife have a give and take. “I let her win on material things, and she lets me win with experiences or vacations,” he said. “You don’t want one person to win all the time. You need those different perspectives.”

The report by Dr. Garbinsky and her colleagues found that the money conversation situation isn’t hopeless. Encouraging people to view financial conflict as “solvable” rather than “perpetual” — that is, based on fundamental differences in their approaches to managing money — makes them more likely to talk to their partner about finance, the researchers found.

When people see that “financial problems do have solutions and compromise is possible,” Dr. Garbinsky said, “they become more willing to talk to their partner.”

Here are some questions and answers about relationships and money:

Research suggests pooling funds increases the satisfaction in relationships, Dr. Garbinsky said. If you share an account, it forces conversations about money. “It helps get couples on the same page,” she said.

Dr. Rick said a joint account helped the couple think of all their money as belonging to them as a unit, rather than as individuals. Big expenses, like rent or a mortgage or car payments, and basics like…

Read More: Why Some People Don’t Talk About Money With Their Partner

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