If you don’t think money can be a stumbling block in the search for true love, maybe you haven’t watched enough romantic comedies. From the 1930s to the present, rom-coms are full of marrying for money (or breaking up due to lack thereof), lavish spending, bankruptcies, rich dads, maxed-out credit cards and – more recently – student loan and post-recession economic problems.
Like in the movies, it doesn’t seem to matter if the stress in your relationship is because you have too much money or don’t have enough. According to a 2015 survey by SunTrust Bank, nearly half of couples – regardless of income – reported that their spending habits differed from those of their partners. This discrepancy can understandably cause relationship stress. More than one-third of survey respondents said money was the cause of their problems.
This gives financial advisors a front-row seat to couples’ money drama, from conflicting expectations and differing values to circumstantial stressors like lost jobs, bad investments and unforeseen medical expenses. Even something that might be assumed to be positive – a family inheritance, investment property or trust – can easily drive a wedge between a couple if they don’t have the same perspective on managing the asset.
Here are some proactive ways to make sure your strategy for managing couples in disagreement goes beyond just damage control. (For related reading: How counselors can help couples come to an agreement about finances. )
Become a psychologist
As a counselor, you probably already know that conflicts over money are often really about other issues. Than money. By asking questions that help you get to know a couple – about their dreams, goals, interests and backgrounds – you’ll have a broader perspective to fall back on when friction arises. If one spouse’s retirement dream is buying a yacht and the other is moving to Hawaii to save endangered sea turtles, your job is to find an appropriate way to turn those dreams into a single, actionable plan with fixed finances. Understanding what motivates and drives each person will help you not only build and protect their assets, but it will also avert a situation where one spouse feels that their goals and desires are being compromised.
This psychologist’s mindset extends to your clients’ family backgrounds as well. A successful customer who saves conscientiously – and yet refuses to invest in more profitable and higher-yielding funds – may be afraid of loss and risk stemming from an impoverished childhood or a parent who gambled away the house. Remember that couples are two separate adults who have complex family histories that differ in how they have handled (or neglected) finances.If you’re sensitive to emotional issues, you can help couples feel like they’re on the same team with the same goals, regardless of how they grew up to manage money. (For more information, see: Top 6 Marriage – Killing Money Matters. )
Open a dialogue
When there is tension between two people, it does not always reflect something deeper than a simple lack of communication. That’s why it’s so important to ask questions: Counselors who open a dialogue between a couple facing money issues may find that even basic questions may not have been answered.
Misunderstandings can be the result of benign ignorance rather than actual disagreement. Sometimes it takes an outside party to help address what goes unsaid, but it can be the proverbial elephant in the room secretly undermining a couple’s financial goals. You’ll be surprised how many couples, before they marry or move in together, don’t directly consider expectations around debt, budgets and the role of each partner contributing to the family income. While 41% of couples in the SunTrust survey took more than three months to discuss financial problems, 7% said they never talked about finances.
Much of what couples say about money when they meet with a counselor can’t be said at all. Watch for telltale body language like folded arms – a classic defensive posture – or eye rolls, which spell frustration at best and disrespect at worst. Rather than confronting this behavior, a nonjudgmental acknowledgement of a client’s feelings helps to resolve tensions and encourage the frustrated party to speak up. (For related reading, see: Kids or Cash: The Modern Marriage Dilemma. )
Write it out
If a couple simply won’t open up during a conversation, ask them to write it down separately. Their financial goals. The act of writing, especially by hand, can promote objectivity and empathy. People tend to be more reflective when they write, while speaking can lead to more impulsiveness, which can lead to heated discussions that are ultimately unproductive for your clients – and for your business relationship.
The Bottom Line
When couples dig in their heels, it may be time to focus on the numbers. Perhaps each spouse refuses to compromise their ideals: one wants to save their money for retirement travel and send their children to state schools, the other wants to put most of it into college savings accounts to pay for expensive tuition fees. Mother of the Ivy League Alma Mater. While these spouses are not willing to give up ground, if the conflict is framed this way, they are more likely to open the dialogue on cold, hard numbers. If you stick to the numbers, you can surprise your customers by finding a solution that fertilizes both – without ever picking ideological sides. (For related reading, see: How to advise clients who are getting married later in life. )