"Money doesn't talk it swears" Bob Dylan
Differences in attitudes to money are a major cause of disagreements in relationships. Research shows that financial disagreements are one of the more frequent and less easily resolved causes of relationship conflict. One study found that whilst people are often attracted to potential partners with different emotional reactions to spending, that these differences lead to greater conflict.
Conflicts are not simply about differences in individual propensity to spend or save. Money is a symbol. It is a symbol in the obvious sense that coins and paper notes do not have any intrinsic value in themselves but only in what as a society we have mutually agreed to let them stand for. However, money can be a powerful symbol in other ways, shaped by the role it has played in our lives. For each of us it can symbolise different things but there are many common themes: security, hopes and dreams, the fear of failure, the freedom to do what you want, a parent’s love, conflict, winning, status, power, sexual attraction . . .
Discussions of money in any relationship carry a surface meaning but also come loaded with this symbolism. In a large-scale study I carried out with Adrian Furnham and Sophie von Stumm, we asked a series of questions about the meanings people attach to money. Based on a series of questions developed by Adrian we identified four key attitudes to money: money as power, money as love (or generosity), money as freedom, and money as security. It is not hard to imagine, for example, the challenges faced by a couple in which one of them sees money mostly as a route to freedom to do what they want and the other as primarily a source of security, a buffer against an uncertain future.
Differences are not invariably a problem, but are more likely to be when money is tight. This is especially true if these differences in attitude to money go unrecognised and undiscussed. The evidence is that many of us find money hard to talk about. In a survey I conducted with the BBC of more than 100,000 people in the UK, nearly 40% described themselves as inhibited in talking about money.
As with any cause of conflict in a relationship, communication is really important. It is important understand how your attitudes to money and your partner’s differ and to negotiate how to manage these differences. Without this understanding, conflict is likely to flare anytime money gets tight.
Mark Fenton-O’Creevy is a Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the Open University Business School and a member of the True Potential centre for the Public Understanding of Finance.
Mark appears on the Boxing Day (2015) edition of BBC Radio 4’s Money Box programme at 12:04, to discuss money, emotion, and relationships
von Stumm, S., Fenton-O’Creevy, M., & Furnham, A. (2013). Financial capability, money attitudes and socioeconomic status: Risks for experiencing adverse financial events. Personality and Individual Differences, 54(3), 344-349.