For many couples, money can be a point of conflict and anger — sometimes festering so much that it ends in divorce.
But at its crux, the biggest reason money can break up marriages doesn’t have to do with spending sprees or covert bank accounts. In fact, it doesn’t have to do with the money itself at all, but rather how couples interact in relation to it.
“It’s not so much money, it’s how the partners work together around money, how they relate to one another, and where each other is coming from around money,” Michael McNulty, a Ph.D. at The Chicago Relationship Center and Master Trainer with The Gottman Institute, told Business Insider.
A successful marriage comes down to successful communication. Within that, money can be a particularly contentious issue because it’s often tied to other values, such as trust and honesty.
“If people can’t trust each other around money, more than likely, they can’t trust each other about a lot of things because money is such a basic thing in a relationship,” McNulty says.
With his clients, McNulty recommends developing habits that promote open, honest, and ongoing dialogue between partners. He also commonly suggests weekly “state of the marriage” check-ins, where partners have carte blanche to bring up any issues, from parenting to intimacy to finances.
“If any [problems] get gridlocked, which means that they’re stuck and they’re really hard to talk about, we have to work extra hard on how to talk about them,” he says. “Usually having this weekly meeting helps us to talk about them.”
It’s also crucial for spouses to take the time to fully understand each other’s money philosophies and histories. Was money tight for your partner when they were growing up? Had they been deceived about money in a prior relationship? Has handling money been an issue for them in the past?
“If you get those stories back and forth, often it’s easier for partners to understand one another,” McNulty says.