If you have ever experienced a long-term intimate relationship, you have probably experienced this bizarre yet painfully common phenomenon: couples tend to polarize into oppositional modes of behavior. Even if both people in the relationship were outgoing, one may soon become "the hermit" relative to the other; even if two parents tend to be permissive, one may get pushed into the role of "most permissive" and the other somehow get pegged as "the disciplinarian."
Similarly, couples unconsciously tend to polarize into opposite behaviors around money, especially if they have merged some or all of their money. For instance, even if two spenders come together, over time one will sometimes (miraculously!) become the orderly budgeter who hesitates to make unplanned purchases, while the other becomes the impulsive spender, unwilling to control his or her spending habits.
Stepping beyond the boxes
Seen from the outside, polarizations sometimes look ridiculous. Can't people just snap out of it? But from the inside, being caught in polarized roles can feel horrible, like being trapped in a small box that gets tighter and tighter the more your partner disapproves. Here are three exercises that can help polarized couples move from constriction into greater freedom of choice. We use the examples of hoarder vs. spender, but the exercises work well with any polarization.
Exchanging appreciations. Set aside time to tell each other anything you appreciate, no matter how small, about your partner's behavior around money. For instance, hoarders often secretly admire spender's spontaneity, but they fear that any praise at all will be mistaken as permission to spend wildly.
In reality when each member begins to appreciate the other's strengths and skills, the power struggle is interrupted. In the absence of attacks by one's mate, the spender feels freer to admit his or her own fears about an inability to control spending impulses.
Taking small steps out of the pattern. If you are the "hoarder" in the relationship, try practicing one act of "overspending" a week and record all the feelings you have in reversing your usual pattern. If you are the spender, experiment with conserving in one area where you normally spend more (for example, when eating out deliberately choose a less-expensive item on a menu) and write down how that feels.
Playing with roles. If you are both deeply polarized and despite your best attempts you stay painfully stuck, you might try putting yourself in the other's shoes. While it often feels awkward and fake to start with, the impact of genuinely playing the role you've been resisting can be surprisingly powerful, freeing up humor, compassion, and insight. Playing with role reversals can relieve tensions, deepen your understanding of each other's perspective, and loosen your positions by allowing you to voice unexpressed parts of yourselves.
For a mutually agreed-upon period of time, you and your partner each pretend that your position is now what the other person was previously advocating. Play the new role as honestly as you can, without mockery. Remember that you don't need to agree with the part you are playing--this is just a game. You can do role reversals in several ways: briefly or extensively, realistically or with exaggeration.
Brief: "Let's switch roles for a few minutes."
Extensive: "For the next few days, let's express each other's positions on this issue instead of our own."
Realistic: Here you accurately give voice to what the other person feels and thinks, or speak from the part of yourself that shares your partner's position. For example, the one who usually is the careful saver says, "Let's take your paycheck bonus and treat ourselves at a fancy restaurant tonight!" and the bigger spender of the couple pretends to be cautious. "I don't know. Maybe we should add it to our retirement accounts...."
Exaggerated: Here, to help shift tension, you add playfulness and drama to the role reversal. "Darling! Get your diamonds, I'm flying us to Paris for dinner tonight!" "Sorry, I sold those diamonds and buried the cash in the back yard. You can never be too safe, you know...."
Play with it! After the reversal, talk about how it felt and any insights you gained.
Setting up constructive dialogue
The exercises above can help unlock polarizations, setting the stage for more constructive money discussions. Chances are, if you both have been caught in limiting roles, you have a lot of ground to cover before you can clearly design a new "money life" together. Here are suggestions for continuing the dialogue:
Find some relaxed, non-stressful times--when you're not pressed to make any imminent money decisions--to begin talking about your attitudes towards money. You will probably need several discussions.
- Memories. Share powerful childhood memories about money. Talk about what money represented in your family of origin and what money means to you now. Do your best not to interrupt one another while sharing your thoughts and feelings, and never use anything shared as ammunition for future fights.
- Fears, Hopes, and Desires. Tell your partner about your irrational fears about money ("I fear we'll go bankrupt like my dad did") and then your hopes and dreams, both for you as an individual and for the couple. ("I want enough money to hire administrative help for my business in the next year; I want to take a trip to Paris for two weeks this summer....") Share positive fantasies about what you could do with your money, without regard to the current feasibility of meeting such goals and without worrying at this stage about whether you and your partner have the same goals. Again, no criticisms, judgments, or interruptions.
- Criticisms and appreciations. Next, share ways you feel critical of your partner's money behavior and how the behavior makes you feel; do this succinctly. Then, soon after, acknowledge ways you admire and envy your partner for his/her special abilities or qualities in this arena. Do your utmost to have the positive appreciation part of the exercise last longer than the negative judgments and criticisms. (Old habits die slowly; this may be hard to do, but it's a worthy goal!)
- Facts, Dreams and Goals. Once you have shared the emotional content shaping your attitudes towards money, reaffirm your partnership and discuss the hard facts of your financial lives. Include current earnings, assets and expenditures, projected future earnings and expenses, and your separate and common dreams and goals. State these aspirations in as concrete terms as possible. Aim to keep a light and practical tone to this part of the discussion. Being thorough about Steps 1-3 will make this easier.
Now that you have explored your feelings together, looked at the facts of your finances, and heard each other's longings, you might choose a specific area of your financial life to experiment together with new behaviors.
If you have had a hard time with money in relationships, don't take it personally--you are probably amongst the vast majority. But since money so concretely affects the quality of your life together, and often reflects many other fundamental issues in a relationship, it can be extremely liberating to invest in building a harmonious "money-life" together. We've offered a few tools that many have found tried and true. No doubt you have others available to you. Don't hold back--use them all! .
Other polarized money roles include:
- The planner who plots things out in concrete detail, versus the dreamer who loves grand fantasies and dislikes step-by-step planning.
- The money merger who doesn't want separate accounts, versus the money separatist who has needs to keep some or all money separate.
- The money monk who thinks money is dirty and corrupt, versus the money amasser whose self-worth is built upon how much money is made, spent or saved.
The ideas in this article were adapted with permission from two sources:
Money Harmony, Resolving Money Conflicts in your Life and Relationships by Olivia Mellan, a Washington, D.C. based psychotherapist specializing in money psychology, conflict resolution and couples work. (See resource list on page 8.)
Getting Along, Communication Skills to Help You and Your Loved Ones Move Gracefully Together through Everyday Life by Christopher Mogil and Anne Slepian, More than Money editors. 35 page manual available for $10 postpaid from the Impact Project, 21 Linwood St., Arlington, MA 02174.
Both resources describe many more practical and powerful exercises than we could include here.
© 1990-2005, More Than Money, All rights reserved