Why we fight about money

You have to understand what you’re really fighting about to make peace.

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Key takeaways

  • Money fights can be about any underlying dynamic in a family, so they run the gamut.
  • One step to facing the conflict is not to think of it as something that needs to be resolved, but rather, something that couples need to discuss openly and understand about each other.
  • Couples often have an expectation that they need to end up with the same thinking, but in some financial areas, there are ways to get to a shared decision.
  • Most of all, couples should regularly talk about money, just to get that to be the new normal.

If you had more money, would it solve all your fights about money? Maybe some of them, if you and your significant other are at odds only because of a scarcity of resources in your household.

However, it might not solve all of them, according to Fidelity's latest "Couples and Money" study.* Fidelity asked couples how often they fight about money, and 68% of those in the higher income brackets, above $1 million in investable assets (not including pensions or residences), said they never fought about money. That's compared to 53% in households earning less. While the number of fights reduced as incomes went up, it notably did not go to zero. 

Because money fights can be really be about any underlying dynamic in a family, they run the gamut. For instance, there are sometimes fights over power in a relationship, according to research by Sonya Lutter, a professor of applied human sciences at Kansas State University.

She has found that with heterosexual couples, wives report money conflicts when there is a lack of communication, while husbands report that arguments increase when there are more children. She also has found that when the husband makes more than the wife, the arguments are less, but when a woman makes more, the arguments increase, regardless of net worth.

"Those issues are not going to go away with $5 million or $500 in assets—the same issues are related to our traditional gender stereotypes," says Lutter.

Sometimes a family that seems at harmony because they have enough money is actually just delaying conflict until later in life. When they finally sit down with a financial professional to talk about retirement strategy and estate planning, they figure out they are not on the same page, which they never knew because they might never have talked about it.

Barry Kaiman, an assistant branch leader for Fidelity, sees most conflict of this sort over investment strategy. One spouse tends to be more conservative than the other spouse, and this starts to come out when a financial professional asks them questions to assess their risk tolerance.

Pamela Pirone-Benson, a vice president of advanced planning with Fidelity, also sees it when discussing legacy planning with couples. "I see constant arguing over how much to give kids—how much is too much, how much to give to charity, and who gets what," she says.

Values

Not being on the same page about money values is something that happens at all income levels. Kaiman breaks it down to things you can do with money—save it, spend it, invest it, and give it away.

"When I see couples get into fights, it's because one is valuing one of those elements at a different rate," says Kaiman. 

One step to facing the conflict is not to think of it as something that needs to be resolved, but rather, something that couples need to discuss openly and understand about each other.

"One really helpful approach for couples is to understand that what we value about money is deeply personal. It's tied to who we are and how we want to live. There is always a story behind our views, which is why money is an intimate, emotionally charged topic," says Tobias Donath, senior vice president for the Fidelity Center for Family Engagement.

In this way, couples can view disagreements about money as an opportunity to get to know each other in new ways, to grow closer, and to co-create a shared perspective for the future. This is particularly important because we all grow and change through time. People change. Circumstances evolve. Families grow and move through life stages.

Sirma Tzoutzova, a wealth management advisor with Fidelity, found this approach helpful with a couple recently, who had differing views on how to structure their investments. Initially, the husband, who was in his 60s and still working as an executive, was comfortable with risk. The wife was self-employed and wanted to be more conservative.

"Every year when they met for their annual review, they clashed about strategy. It was like couples counseling," says Tzoutzova.

They couldn't agree on a mutual decision to meet in the middle somewhere, so they swung this way and that, following the volatility of the market at the time of their appointments. That is, until the husband retired and his values started to align more with his wife's, and they settled on the more conservative path.

Legacy

Another area that causes strife is when a couple starts to think about giving away their assets. Couples often have an expectation that they need to end up with the same thinking.

This approach tends to prompt a debate about the relative merits of different options and often leads to each person asserting their own view. Agreement-driven conversations also tend to be judgment-based, with a focus on assessing a choice as "right" or "wrong." This approach often leads to reactivity, a heightened emotional state that can be triggered if someone feels their views or values are being challenged.

But there are a lot of options with legacy planning that can accommodate shared solutions. It all starts with dialogue—sometimes a lot of it—to find out everyone's needs and wants. Then strive for alignment rather than agreement.

Pirone-Benson recently met with clients who were struggling with their feelings around leaving an inheritance to their children in a blended family. The husband wanted to make sure he left money to his 2 children from a prior marriage, while the wife wanted to prioritize the daughter they had together.

Working with their attorney, they ended up coming up with a solution involving marital trusts that worked for everyone. Should he die first, the husband would leave his estate to his wife in a marital trust. The wife would be entitled to the income from the trust and access to the principal only for health. Then upon her death, the remaining trust assets would be split in thirds among the children.

If the wife dies first, her assets will be split among her daughter and her husband, and he would then leave his remaining assets in thirds to the children according to his wishes.

"They both get what they want with compromise," says Pirone-Benson.

Power

To get to this sort of mutual decision, you have to be willing to "reprocess bad process," says Donath. That means coming back to your partner after a disagreement and processing anything you now view as problematic, such as raising your voice or being dismissive. By looping back and initiating a conversation about it, you enable the relationship to mend and open the door to shared learning and connection.

Another key to changing the power dynamic is to hold strong views loosely, so you stay open to discussion. When we have a rigid or absolute view—especially when we are not aware of how strong it is for us—we tend to shut down dialogue because it is hard for others to engage with us.

"On the other hand, if we are aware of our strongly held views—and willing to hold them loosely—we can engage in dialogue and explore perspectives," says Donath.

Most of all, couples should regularly talk about money, just to get that to be the new normal.

"You don't have to be focused on trying to make a point or having things go a certain way—you simply explore each other's values and views as you build a shared understanding of the topic," says Donath. "Though there will always be times of tension, couples may also find that their interactions over money become a source of joy and connection."

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