How To Navigate Different Financial Expectations With Your Partner

financial empathy money beliefs Aug 10, 2021

We all have financial expectations of others. Financial expectations are how we expect people to behave and how much we expect to spend on certain things. 

It can be so easy to have missed financial expectations in your intimate relationships which is a major source of distress and conflict in a couple’s relationship. 

When you think about it in simple terms, there are three ways that things can go with financial expectations. 

They can be met, missed, or exceeded. 

Stop and think about it for a minute. What is the ratio of met, missed, or exceed financial expectations in your intimate relationship? 

How does this leave you feeling? Grateful, Sad, Angry, Anxious, Scared, Joyful, Numb? 

It is this relationship between financial expectations and emotional responses that we are going to explore in this blog post. 

Emotional responses are sometimes contradictory responses that signal whether we have missed, met, or exceeded expectations. 

Depending on the emotional response a whole sequence of interactions and evaluations of ourselves and our partners will happen, all in a blink of an eye. Thank you autonomic nervous system (fight, flight, freeze, fawn system)! 

We all have financial expectations of ourselves and our partners. 

Of course, there are many other people we hold financial expectations of including our bosses, parents, siblings, friends, community, and society at large. We are part of a massive economic system with very complex and dynamic interactions. 

But let’s stay focused on what happens between you and your partner for today. Otherwise, we will get stuck talking about politicians, business leaders, and whoever else you think is not meeting or matching your financial expectations.

I would like you to stop for 3 - 5 minutes and do a brain dump of all the financial expectations you have of yourself and your partner. This can include expectations regarding income, expenses, savings, gifts, work, charity, family, travel, you name it there is a financial expectation baked in there. Let your gears turn and see what comes up. 

Financial Expectations 

So why do we have financial expectations? 

Financial expectations help us to move more smoothly and predictably through life. They help us know what to expect. 

Have you ever traveled internationally where they use a different currency and all of sudden you don’t know if you’re paying too much for lunch or dinner because you haven’t converted the currency yet? This is the value of financial expectations. 

Financial expectations provide us predictability in our intimate relationship with our partners. 

When we are first starting out together there are many financial unknowns like who pays for dinner (yes I know the old convention was the guy does that), to how bills will be paid, what hobbies money will be spent on, to how much to pay for a hamburger. There are more financial expectations than you could possibly count. 

Life Span

Here is the tricky thing. Financial expectations never go away, there is no escaping them. 

You can become rich and famous and there will still be financial expectations, you can become a monk on the mountain and there will still be financial expectations, or you can keep living your life, going to work, raising kids, enjoying grandkids, wherever you at in life you will be navigating financial expectations of yourself and your intimate partner. 

I have met many people that hold either the conscious or unconscious thought that if somehow they reach some imagined financial position they won’t have to deal with the pressure of money. 

Remember the pressure we feel about money comes out of expectations. 

3 types Of Financial Expectations

As we navigate over our lifespan we are going to encounter three types of financial expectations. 

  • Everyday expectations
  • Once in a while expectations
  • Once-in-a-lifetime expectations. 

Every day expectations are about the food we eat, the things we buy on Amazon, the gas we put in the car, and what financial information we share with our partner. For many, this is pretty routine. 

Then we move out into the once in a while expectations that can include trips, cars, houses, career changes, education. 

Then we have the once-in-a-lifetime kind of decisions like retirement savings goals and estate planning decisions. 

Here is where things can get challenging, our financial expectations can change over the course of our life based on a wide variety of factors. 

My main point is to help you see just how many financial expectations you hold and that in some ways they are all interrelated even if we are not thinking about them all at the same time. 

At a much deeper level, we have a system of financial expectations. 

These financial expectations are governed by a mostly invisible interplay of biological, psychological, sociological, and spiritual/meaning-oriented realities. 

When our financial expectations don’t line up with our partner’s financial expectations we can feel despair, frustration, anger, shame, and sadness. 

When you feel these difficult emotions you then need to have effective relational skills to navigate the relationship rupture and move towards repair so that you can go back to being to feeling good in your partnership again. 

Financial Expectations Missed = Despair

When I am working with couples in financial therapy the issues of missed financial expectations comes up all the time. 

It is like a couple is dancing and then all of sudden one partner steps on the other’s toes and they don’t know how to get back to dancing together. 

Some couples start out on the same dance, but then move into different dance moves, while others were never dancing to the same music from the beginning. 

Either way, financial expectations get missed, and despair sets in. 

Here is where things get tricky. Most couples stuck in a cycle of despair around financial expectations can’t see how deep and personal the other person’s financial expectations are. 

We all hold a deep, complex, and dynamic set of financial expectations. They are the invisible dance moves in our heads about money. They feel right, normal, and familiar to us, they are our subjectivity. They are based on our money beliefs

Part of moving through the mismatches in financial expectations is learning to see our own subjectivity that feels like objective truth.

Attachment Style and Trauma History

I have talked in past blog posts about the power of our attachment styles (take the attachment style quiz) and trauma history (check your ACE score) to shape the way we interact with money. 

Our particular attachment style and attachment history will drive a lot of how we navigate the inevitable missed financial expectations. 

If both people have secure attachment styles and low to no trauma in their backgrounds then they will be able to use effective perspective-taking skills to see the misalignment in financial expectations and find supportive, caring, and empathic ways to return towards relationship repair. 

On the other hand, if you or your partner has an insecure attachment style and trauma in your history it is going to be harder to navigate the missed financial expectations and return to relationship stability. 

Recently I watched several episodes of Heist on Netflix. Talk about the intersection of missed financial expectations, relationship rupture, and an inability to recover relationally. 

This show sheds light on how extreme things can get around missed financial expectations and attachment styles. 

No, they did not name each person’s attachment style, but once you learn to see it, you can’t miss it. 

In each profile of someone that committed a heist worth over millions of dollars, there was an intimate relationship, financial expectations unmet, and extreme behavior to try and reconcile or keep the relationship going. 

It profiled what would seem like three very different people and their stories, a woman from a deeply drug-addicted family, a Cuban immigrant, and a Kentucky bourbon worker. Yet each had a history of deeper trauma, and if evaluated would have had insecure attachment patterns. 

They could not resolve initial relationship and financial dilemmas and so over time, they resorted to more extreme behavior. The simple the equation is the more the distress, the more extreme the behavior becomes.

While you may never go to the extent of stilling millions of dollars to resolve differences in relationship and financial expectations, there are many smaller ways that you may try to accommodate to mismatches in financial expectations. 

With this in mind, not all is doom and gloom. 

Financial expectations can be exceeded leading to delight, gratitude, and joy. 

Financial Expectations Exceed = Delight

What happens to you when your partner or you exceed your financial expectations? 

I would like to say it is always a good thing, but it is not. Heavy I know. 

Our relationships with money are complicated. 

Positively exceeding financial expectations, like having a larger tax refund, getting a pay raise, your partner springing for the nicer birthday gift, and so many other ways can be a great experience. 

If you have a secure relationship, and a healthy relationship with money then having your financial expectations exceeded will likely lead to a response of joy, delight, gratitude, and yes even love. 

On the other hand, if you have one of the insecure attachment styles, and a more problematic relationship with money, even what many people would consider financial expectations being exceeded can evoke suspicion, concern, anxiety, shame. 

Let’s take a common example I see. 

One partner buys a nice gift for the other partner. 

You would expect that partner to be grateful and excited, but instead, it evokes withdrawal and either an explicit or implicit statement of saying I don’t deserve this. 

Again we run into a subjective evaluation that has a deeper history to it than the current gift that has been given. 

There can also be some larger contextual realities, that spoil the nicer than expected birthday gift in this case. Such as the family debt that has continued to be growing or the person receiving the gift internalized a rule that nice birthday gifts are not worth it. In their own childhood, their parents didn’t have the money to give nice gifts or minimized how excited they should be about the birthday gifts they were receiving. 

In these experiences, people are missing out on the joy of money. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. Exceeding financial expectations can be a positive experience. 

Understanding and Empathy

Let’s bring this full circle. Both you and your partner hold many different financial expectations that span the spectrum of possible topics. 

We are not going to get rid of financial expectations, but rather we can learn to embrace, explore and yes sometimes evolve our financial expectations. 

Remember our financial expectations made and make sense in the particular context within which they developed. 

You can learn to understand how these developed and the patterns of your money beliefs with tools like The Family Money Tree course

Once you understand how they developed, the question is whether they still make sense today in your current context and reality. 

Life is complicated, and changing your financial expectations is not always easy, but it can help you move towards a place of greater congruency. 

Let’s meet our financial expectations of ourselves, and our partners with financial empathy, compassion, and curiosity. 

If you don’t know about your attachment style or how your trauma history may be impacting your relationship with money I invite you to read my book The Healthy Love & Money Way: How The Four Attachment Styles Impact Your Financial Well-Being

Developing a healthy relationship with money is a process and not one you have to do on your own. This is why I developed The Couples Guide to Financial Intimacy based on my years of working with couples and the ideas and activities that actually created long term change. 

Would you like more 1 on 1 support? Then perhaps Therapy Informed Financial Planning is for the two of you. I invite you to schedule your free 30-minute discovery call today.

Wishing You Healthy Love and Money,

Ed Coambs


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