How Couples Can Use Expressive Writing for Self-Reflection and Financial Well-Being

Feb 23, 2024
A woman with a surprised look writes in a journal

Money runs through every part of your life as a couple. It influences: 


  • The jobs you have and don’t take
  • The neighborhoods you live in and don’t
  • The vacations you take and don’t
  • And so much more


It is easy to take this for granted, which is why it is essential to develop a practice of self-reflection to deeply understand the role that money plays in your life and relationships. 


Who are you going to turn to to figure this out? 


Some of the deepest thinkers I know are therapists, yet many of them have given little thought to the role that money plays in their lives. They don’t consider the more complex and nuanced aspects of finances. 


On the other hand, I know many financial planners who have thought deeply about the technical side of money. Issues related to cash flow, investments, taxes, insurance, and estate planning. However, they often struggle to fully understand and empathize with what motivates their clients to make the money decisions that they do. 


Taking the time to open yourself up to the meaning and role of money in your life will increase your financial well-being. 


The Importance of Self-Reflection For Financial Well-Being


When we conflict with our partners about money, the last thing we are thinking about is how self-reflection can help us through the financial conflict. 


We are likely either stuck blaming our partner or taking on all the blame ourselves for why things are the way that they are. We are not in a state of self-reflection, which could bring us into a bigger picture of what this conflict means to us and the motivations behind our reactions. 


When couples are locked in financial conflict, they are in a state of reaction, not reflectivity. These are two very different states of mind for very understandable reasons. Our brains have built-in mechanisms and processes to protect us when we feel threatened; these range from psychological defense mechanisms to changes in our physiological arousal. If these changes in the state of our minds and bodies are prolonged, they can become mental health conditions. 


I have yet to meet a couple that does not face financial challenges at some point. This is the nature of life and intimate relationships. The deeper question is how will you get through this together. 


Taking the time for self-reflection may feel like a luxury, but it’s not one you can afford to miss. 


The mental health benefits of self-reflection are two-fold. First, self-reflection has the power to help us recognize our psychological defense mechanisms in action as we fight about money. Second, self-reflection can also help to bring us back into physiological regulation so we can see a wider set of options for both ourselves and our partners. 


Creating financial peace of mind as a couple is a learning, healing, and growing experience that can be facilitated by expressive writing. 


The Essential Role of Expressive Writing in Self-Reflection and Financial Well-Being

Money is an emotionally and relationally charged topic for many couples. There is plenty of academic and general evidence that couples fight about money. 


Why is that? 


As children, our nervous and emotional systems develop first. Our nervous systems sense whether things are safe or unsafe continuously. Our emotional systems add layers of meaning to the events and relationship experiences we have. Our critical thinking and reflective capacities develop much later, helping us make sense of the environment we live in, including the numerous financial experiences our families live through. 


No matter your income or wealth status, the experience of stress is not differentiated in the body and mind of a child. 


It is just encoded that money is __________.  Take a moment for self-reflection now and fill in the rest of this sentence. 


Emotional experiences come in three general tones: overwhelming, regulated, and shut down. The concept of the window of tolerance is very helpful for understanding your emotional range. 


Expressive writing about emotionally overwhelming or shut-down experiences helps you come into a regulated flow of emotions related to your money experiences. 


When you are either emotionally overwhelmed or shut down around money, it will make it harder for both you and your partner to navigate your financial differences. 


Expressive writing is a type of deep self-reflection that helps to honor yourself and your partner in a safe way. 


Perhaps you are new to expressive writing, or maybe you are a seasoned expressive writer perhaps but you have never used it to work through a money conflict before. Let’s try a short exercise together. 


Step 1 - Get a piece of paper or use your computer.

Step 2 - Write about what distresses you about your money situation.

Step 3 - Let the emotional intensity of what you are experiencing determine the size of your writing.  So if you are really angry, write very large — or even larger! If you are feeling sad and small, write very small. Let your intuition guide the size and style of your writing. 

Step 4 - Let yourself write for as long as you like or can. If possible, keep going until the big feelings start to feel not so big and/or the small feelings start to feel not so small anymore. 


If this is your first time experimenting with expressive writing, acknowledge yourself for trying something new. Continue to read, explore, and experiment with expressive writing.


If you are a seasoned expressive writer, notice what it was like to expressively write about a financial situation that is causing you emotional distress.  


Expressing writing is a gift to yourself and your partner. It is a way of getting clear about your feelings around money and those you manage it with. It is also a skill and resource that can be cultivated over time to build your own self-awareness and personal growth. 


Self-Reflection Leads to Personal Growth and Helps Couples Communicate About Money

As individuals and couples, we all have some level of personal growth and emotional maturity that we have obtained both generally and concerning money. 


I have seen many people whom I would consider to be generally emotionally mature collapse into emotional immaturity when it comes to their financial lives. I think about this through the lens of unresolved childhood trauma around money that can lead to psychological regression to a young age. 


One of the things that studying and using trauma therapy with clients has taught me is that unresolved emotional reactions to traumatic experiences have a powerful ability to take us back in time. 


Self-reflection and expressive writing become powerful tools for helping you through emotional regressions and emotional maturity issues. 


Have you ever been accused of being childish with money? Did you become defensive about it? Perhaps some self-reflection will reveal where this is coming from.


Have you ever been accused of being controlling with money, and you denied it? Perhaps you are re-creating the controlling financial behavior you saw in your family. 


Have you ever been accused of being _________ with money? Or have you ever accused your partner of being ________________ with money? It’s time for some self-reflection.


As a couple, it is your shared responsibility to develop a clearer understanding of your relationships and experiences with money. Getting to this clearer understanding will empower both of you with a greater sense of control over your shared financial life. 


The Reciprocal Relationship of Financial Planning and Self-Reflection

Financial planning is about so much more than the numbers and financial products you can buy. Part of financial planning is becoming more self-reflective individually and as a couple about where you want your life to go together. 


Money is an incredible tool to help couples and families move in the direction of a meaningful life. 


What roles do you want money to play in your life together? 


Imagining your financial future and setting financial goals is a self-reflection process. You get the chance to become curious and open about what you want for yourself, what your partner wants for themselves, and what the two of you want together.

I know in writing this it sounds simple, but in practice, I know this process can be very challenging for both individuals and couples. 


Let’s use self-reflection to become curious about why setting financial goals is challenging for you. Here are some questions to start you off:


  • What did your mother believe about financial goals?
  •  What did your father believe about financial goals?
  • What did other significant adults in your life believe about financial goals?
  • What patterns or themes do you notice? 
  • How would you like to see these patterns and themes change now in your life? 


Questions are a significant part of self-reflection and the keys to the locks of our minds. Learning to ask ourselves and allowing others to ask us meaningful questions develops our ability for self-reflection. This can take us to deeper self-awareness so we can make new financial decisions for ourselves. 


That’s why I created Therapy-Informed Financial Planning — to help couples exercise self-reflection as part of their financial planning process. I have watched couples grow closer together and gain clarity about their financial future and goals using these tools. 


Let’s schedule a time to talk if you would like to learn more. 


Self-Reflection Is a Gift,

Ed Coambs




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