· Illustration by Aleks Sennwald
Author and financial educator Ruth Hayden explains the “four cornerstones” of a healthy partnership, and how they can relieve the stress of sharing a financial life.
It’s Friday night. You and your sweetheart are finally relaxed on the couch in front of the fire. You snuggle in, gaze into your darling’s eyes, and lean in close to whisper.
“Honey, we got an overdraft fee this afternoon.”
Most of us understand that this is the verbal equivalent of pouring ice water on our lover’s lap. Still, even if our timing isn’t always quite this bad, we’re all prone to drop bombs on our partners now and then. Maybe while they’re going out the door to work or on the way to dinner at the in-laws. And according to financial educator Ruth Hayden, every haphazard comment about shared finances flung in our partner’s direction can have a deadening effect on intimacy.
As Hayden explained in the first installment of this two-part series (see “For Love and Money”), one of the main reasons it’s so difficult to communicate effectively with our loved ones about money is that we’re simply not very rational about it. Our so-called thinking about finances is driven by emotional beliefs we developed in childhood. And those beliefs underpin our behavior patterns, whether we’re habitually frugal or prodigious spendthrifts.
In a class she teaches called “Couples and Money,” which I attended with my spouse, Hayden explains that successful couples find ways to manage their fiscal lives without being driven solely by their old stories. And they do this by embodying what she calls the “four cornerstones” of a healthy financial partnership: commitment, trust, respect and compromise.
Once you’ve acquired awareness (and thereby some control) of the feelings driving your money choices — which are discussed in part one — you’ll be ready to start building the cornerstones into your relationship.
A fully invested, mutual commitment is essential to creating a strong money partnership, Hayden explains, especially as you prepare to change old patterns and establish new habits. Demons will arise and you will want to return to your old, ineffective-but-comfortable ways. One hundred percent dedication ensures that you’ll stay with the process even when it gets hard. It also communicates to your partner that he or she can count on you to do your part to manage your money together successfully.
My partner and I began Hayden’s class by signing a contract that states our resolve to “find a new way to work with money.” And the first active step, according to Hayden, is agreeing to a weekly money meeting. This involves scheduling no more than one hour each week to discuss financial matters, as well as your goals, hopes and apprehensions. “Even if [you] don’t get a lot done at first, just show up,” Hayden says. “Just show up and the trust starts to build.”
The time slot ensures that you’ll have an opportunity to develop and monitor a budget, discuss basics like the electric bill, and even figure out schedule-oriented stuff — like who needs the car on which days the following week. The regular confab also has symbolic currency. “The money meeting is a symbol of your commitment to creating real change in your money life,” Hayden explains. “It is a specific action that shows you are both moving beyond your present money beliefs toward real change.”
Once you’ve made the commitment to change, and proved you mean it by showing up for the weekly meeting, you’ve begun to build the second cornerstone: trust. “Keeping your commitment to meet week after week will help you change the money beliefs that say ‘I can’t trust me’ or ‘I can’t trust you,’” explains Hayden.
Another way the money meeting develops trust is by ensuring that you and your partner actually discuss your financial life on a regular basis, not just at moments of crisis. Bills get paid on time. Checkbooks stay balanced. The risk of buzz-kill conversations is reduced.
Finally, as you work together on developing and maintaining a budget, you learn how much money you actually have — or don’t. You’ll know how many credit cards your partner has and how much debt he or she carries. (A full third of couples don’t have this information, Hayden says.) And because you’ve committed to a blame-free way of interacting (see the first installment of this story), it will be safe to discuss these things.
When it comes to revealing and discussing the hidden details of your money life, Hayden insists that “it doesn’t feel safer to know, but it is safer to know.” And this feeling of authentic, informed safety helps deepen your intimacy.
Couples often believe they can be respectful to one another in every facet of their lives but money, Hayden says, while their interactions around finances remain a free-for-all, infected with dismissive, sarcastic and impatient remarks. But mutual respect is essential to a strong money partnership.
Having agreed early in Hayden’s class that we would do our best to communicate without blame, as well as respect the other’s way of dealing with money even as it differed from our own, my partner and I discovered that our money interactions had already become more dignified. Dispensing with blame facilitated money conversations that were focused on how to get things done, not whose fault it is that this or that happened.
We also discovered that communicating regularly and openly during the meetings had a seemingly magical effect on the rest of the week. We stopped calling out bad news to each other on the way out the door, or talking about money over breakfast or right before bed. We knew and trusted that we had a time and place to discuss bills and plans — and it wasn’t the couch on a Friday night.
When a member of a couple tells Hayden, “This isn’t how I did things when I was single,” she usually responds with something like, “Well, you’re not single — but we can arrange for that.”
If the goal is to change your money life with your partner, the path doesn’t include doing things exactly the way you’ve always done them on your own, no matter how right that might feel. It does involve building the fourth cornerstone into your relationship: compromise.
“I use the word ‘compromise’ because, for most people, compromise implies some kind of giving up or loss,” Hayden explains. She believes it reflects a cultural habit of scarcity, a belief that “if you get yours, I can’t get mine.” But compromise doesn’t have to be about loss, she says. In this context, it means you’ve decided that it’s possible for both of you to get what you need.
“Compromise means stretching, not losing,” she tells us in class. Sometimes it feels like a stretch to have a money meeting when you’d rather be playing softball or watching a movie. It feels like a stretch to cede total control over the checkbook if you’ve been handling the bills forever. I nearly lost my mind at the prospect of finally merging bank accounts with my sweetheart — but that was the only thing I lost. In every other way, our compromise came with huge gains in trust and closeness.
You know you’ve changed, Hayden says, when you can say, “Look at how we’re doing things differently in order to be together.” Then you know you’ve got the four cornerstones built in. And in her words, this is when you’re also likely to say, “Hot damn. This is good.”