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Relationships: First Comes Love, Then Comes Money

Do you know what the number one reason for divorce is in our society? It isn’t disagreements about sex or in-laws. It isn’t even infidelity or other forms of cheating. The top-ranking cause of divorce and relationship strife is conflicts over money.

That’s because partners frequently have very different approaches to handling finances. All of us develop a “money personality” or a philosophy of finances—a grid through which we make decisions about spending, investing, and giving. Don’t underestimate the importance of finding a life partner whose financial views are compatible with your own.

As psychotherapist Olivia Mellan pointed out, “When two people form an enduring relationship with each other, money is always a partner, too. Many individuals have a troubled relationship with money. Then, when they get into a couple relationship, money matters get explosive. Other people may have no problem with money individually; the trouble starts after they’re in a relationship.”1

In their book Cents & Sensibility: How Couples Can Agree about Money, financial counselors Scott and Bethany Palmer cite five primary categories that cause conflict:

Spenders vs. Savers.
Some people are tight-fisted with their money while others are open-handed with it. Some are happy to let their money flow out while others carefully regulate the spigot. When one person consistently wants to consume and the other wants to conserve, quarrels are sure to erupt.

Dueling over Debt.
Conflicts often arise over partners’ level of “debt tolerance.” One person can’t stand owing a cent; the other thinks debt is just part of modern life—a necessary evil. Other disagreements develop over when it is acceptable to take on debt: for some, school tuition, a home mortgage, and medical emergencies are the only valid reasons; for others, a new big-screen TV is worthy of another credit card charge.

Risk-takers vs. Security-seekers.
If given a thousand dollars, one person might put it in a safe, slow-growth money-market account while another would happily invest in a friend’s high-potential (and high-risk) business venture. Clashes will occur when you put an aggressive and assertive type with someone who is cautious and conservative.

Exasperating Expectations.
People come into a long-term relationship with differing assumptions about money matters. Is one spouse expected to be the primary breadwinner, or is the responsibility shared? Who will be in charge of paying the bills? How will decisions about purchases be made? These and dozens of other issues must be settled if peace is to prevail.

Flying Blind.
Lots of people just don’t pay close attention to their finances. They make a mess of their money and never get around to cleaning it up. Tension mounts when couples regularly forget to pay bills, bounce checks, avoid necessary paperwork, and scramble to file taxes at the last minute.2

As your relationship evolves and patterns emerge, be attentive to financial differences and similarities. Though often overlooked, financial compatibility is essential to the ongoing health of your partnership.

1. Olivia Mellan, “Men, Women, and Money,” Psychology Today, January 1999, p. 36.
2. Scott and Bethany Palmer, Cents & Sensibility: How Couples Can Agree about Money (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Cook Communications, 2003).