Talking about money can help build healthier relationships

20 May 2016 By Rebecca Simpson and Tanya Spence, Financial Health Exchange

As we come towards the end of Mental Health Awareness week, we are reminded by the Mental Health Foundation that relationships matter.  They are critical to our health and well-being, and are as vital as other lifestyle factors such as eating well, exercising, and quitting smoking.

The Mental Health Foundation is lobbying national governments, public bodies and employers to promote good relationships and to tackle the barriers that stop many people from forming them – such as increasing pressures on work-life balance and the negative impact of previous experience of bullying and unhealthy relationships.

The challenge for the rest of us is to prioritise building and maintaining our own relationships with others – and the Foundation ask all of us to make a pledge to do so. One pledge that could support us to build healthier relationships concerns more open and honest communication with others about money.

The ‘M’ word

Money can become a major barrier to developing and maintaining healthy relationships.  A long term study of 4,500 couples in the U.S. found that arguments about money were among the top predictors of divorce.  The study, “Examining the Relationship Between Financial Issues and Divorce”[1], found that arguments about money decreases a person’s feelings of satisfaction in their relationship – primarily because these sorts of arguments linger for a long time.

Financial hardship and debt can become a source of stress for anyone – but less acute issues such as wage differences between partners, changes in household circumstances, and differences in attitudes towards money can cause immense emotional strain between partners.

Money is still a controversial subject to talk about in our society. It is something we feel uncomfortable talking about openly and honestly – both with strangers and with people we know.  Researchers from UCL found that people are seven times more likely to tell a stranger how many sexual partners they’ve had than talk about their income.  Another study by mobile banking firm Osper showed that parents are more likely to talk to their children about sex than money.

What is particularly worrisome though is that we are also uncomfortable talking about money in our most intimate relationships. In a 2015 poll, the Money Advice Service found that nearly half (45%) of people in relationships reported they weren’t always honest with their partners about finance.

At Toynbee Hall we have seen this first-hand in our direct delivery work. We have been delivering financial education programmes in London for many years, and have worked closely with charities across the UK to equip staff and volunteers to deliver support in their local areas. These combined experiences have shown us that money is frequently a subject of taboo within households. People often struggle with debt and money worries alone, rather than talk openly about it.  This can have serious repercussions for household resilience and well-being. Without open and honest communication, households can struggle to manage shared finances effectively, both day to day and in the long term, as they do not realise that there may be different motivations driving how each other manages their money. Sometimes these motivations are in direct conflict with each other, and in extreme cases this can lead to financial problems and debt. When people reach this crisis point, what they most need to do is find a way to work together to find solutions. But all too often emotions such as anger, embarrassment, pride or fear mean people continue in silence and try to deal with the problems alone. This can lead to increased anxiety, relationship breakdown, and poor mental health and well-being.

Confidence and communication skills can make a difference

Through our Community Money Mentors programme we have found that confidence is an important factor in building financial capability and responsibility.  It isn’t just confidence to manage money, but also confidence to talk about money.  A key ‘ingredient’ in this was communication skills. Developing the communication skills of learners empowered them to take control and advocate for themselves, which had a knock-on effect in the household. Relationships with family and friends improved and participants said that their families were working together more to create budgeting plans, share money management tips, and also share financial responsibility.

Confidence to talk with others about finance can be boosted just by better understanding the benefits of being open with our partners and children, and it’s here where we can all be effective advocates. Experian, the credit reference agency, reminds us that our partner’s financial behaviour can significantly impact our loan and credit applications, so if we have financial associations with others we will benefit significantly from establishing and maintaining open communication with them. Indeed, it’s not just couples that can benefit from these types of discussions; the Money Advice Service have shown recently that not enough of us are engaging in conversations with our children about money, despite children forming lasting money habits before the age of seven.

As practitioners, it’s important for us to acknowledge this complex dynamic between money and relationships, and to understand better how money can cause strain in relationships.  If good relationships are critical to our health and well-being, than it is essential that we support our clients to develop the skills and confidence they need to talk about money and work together with their partners and families towards better financial health. The charity Relate, the largest provider of relationship support in the UK, offer some excellent guidance to couples who may be struggling to talk openly about finance, including a quiz to identify whether money is causing them trouble in their relationship.

If you’re not sure how to help people build their confidence to talk about money, ask us about our training programmes for front-line staff, or sign up to one of our regional events which include workshops on creating effective communication.

[1] Dew, J., Britt, S. and Huston, S. (2012), Examining the Relationship Between Financial Issues and Divorce. Family Relations, 61: 615–628. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-3729.2012.00715.x