The issue of “financial infidelity” — in the form of hidden debt, hidden purchases or other means of deceptive spending — has recently entered our collective relationship vocabulary and sprung up on our list of issues that can take a marriage from happy to hostile. However, relationship experts and financial advisors alike say that daters who take steps to increase their financial
intimacy can help to strengthen their relationships early on and reduce the risk of financial infidelity later on down the road.
What, exactly, is financial intimacy? Jacquette M. Timmons
, financial advisor and author of Financial Intimacy: How to Create a Healthy Relationship with Your Money and Your Mate
, says: “Financial intimacy is [having] awareness around your own money story as it pertains to your beliefs and your choices about money, because it always begins with you. But it is also the medium through which you connect with another person. Money can often become the way in which you get to know each other.” Experts on the topics of love and money offer up these tips for boosting your financial intimacy in the dating stages of a new relationship:
Observation is the first step towards establishing financial intimacy
While some anxious daters may feel the urge to ask for credit reports or profit-and-loss spreadsheets early on, Timmons counsels that most of the crucial information about your date’s relationship with money can be gleaned by simply watching that person. “It begins with observing,” Timmons says. “What does the person do? When you go out, does he or she pay with cash, a credit card, or a debit card? Does the place your date is taking you seem to match up with what you know about this person, or does your date live above or beyond his/her means? In the end, this is all stuff you’ll have to confirm, but you can start with basic observation.”
Realize that it’s OK to feel awkward and uncomfortable talking about money
Because most of us tend to want to suppress any difficult and/or uncomfortable feelings, Timmons says that learning to ask questions about other people’s attitudes towards money requires daters to make a kind of “paradigm shift” in communication styles. “We tend to feel self-conscious about asking questions,” Timmons explains. “But instead of running away from things that don’t feel comfortable, you might look at this as a time to step forward to get to know both the other person and
yourself. It’s OK to feel awkward, but don’t let that stop you from asking the questions you need to ask. Financial intimacy can open the door through which you get to connect with each other. It’s a pathway for navigating through emotional terrains.”
Be willing to volunteer info and answer questions about your own financial history
Instead of quizzing your dates about their individual financial histories, Timmons recommends volunteering some information about your own relationship with money first. By making yourself vulnerable from the outset, you’re providing a much more inviting context for the other person to share his or her own story. “Any question you ask of others, you must be willing to answer first,” Timmons advises.
Ask questions designed to draw out your date’s personal money narrative
When it’s time to start asking questions, Timmons says, you want to assume a non-judgmental approach. Ideally, whatever you decide to ask your date should be focused on understanding this person’s overall relationship with money rather than just the cold, hard facts — such as your date’s net income and consumer debt amount. “It goes beyond questions like, ‘How much do you make?’” Timmons explains. “Someone might not be making much money right now due circumstances beyond his/her control, but what you’re looking at is your date’s character. You want to be asking yourself questions like, ‘How well does this person bounce back from adversity?’”
Let the conversation evolve naturally over time
Like other types of intimacy, financial intimacy is something that develops incrementally over time. “Personal information is something that is revealed as a relationship develops, and many people view financial information as extremely personal,” says Lesli Doares
, marriage therapist and author of Blueprint for a Lasting Marriage: How to Create Your Happily Ever After with More Intention, Less Work
. “An individual’s willingness to be honest about this aspect of his or her life is just as telling as what gets shared about this person’s past relationships, goals, values, and beliefs. If a relationship is going to be healthy and have a chance to succeed, honesty about this aspect of each person’s life is important from the beginning. But this doesn’t mean everything needs to be revealed prematurely; if there’s an inclination to withhold or be less than honest, it’s a good idea to figure out what that is about — and who owns it,” Doares says.
Understand the role your families play in shaping your attitudes about money
When it’s time for you and a potential partner to open up and share your financial narratives with each other, stay focused on understanding each person’s learned relationship with money. Timmons urges daters to ask themselves, “What did your date observe about money growing up?” and “How did those observations influence the type of partner he or she is seeking?” Timmons stresses that a family’s relationship with money can be a very important indicator of how one’s own will be formed. Generally, our inherited family values around money “tend to fall into three categories,” says Timmons:
1. As adults, we’re doing exactly the same as our parents did with money;
2. As adults, we are doing exactly the opposite of our parents;
3. We think we’re doing things differently or the opposite of our parents — but we are, in fact, doing just as they did without realizing it.
Different financial styles aren’t a matter of right vs. wrong
Whatever you learn about yourself and your date on this road to financial intimacy, it’s helpful not to cast your discoveries about each other’s spending and saving styles into a black-and-white framework. “Understand that it’s not a matter of right or wrong — that each partner has different views about the value and uses of money,” says Tina B. Tessina
, psychotherapist and author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage
(Adams Media). “Savers aren’t necessarily stingy, and spenders aren’t necessarily out of control. Actually, these two can really complement each other, because the saver helps create a financially sound future for the couple, while the spender reminds them to enjoy the present and make the most of their spending dollars.”
A willingness to be imperfect helps couples avoid committing financial infidelity
Timmons says that the “shame of not honoring the commitment you both agreed to in the relationship” can sometimes get couples into trouble by leading to acts of financial infidelity. “If you’re not living up to the image the other person has of you,” Timmons explains, it’s tempting to hide your spending — or other ways of breaking the relationship’s shared agreements about handling the household’s finances. “It all boils down to communication,” says Timmons. “Often, admitting that you might not be perfect to your partner is what’s needed.”
Theo Pauline Nestor is the author of How to Sleep Alone in King-Size Bed: A Memoir of Starting Over and a regular contributor to Happen magazine.