How do I talk to my partner about their excessive spending?Nov 17, 2023
Sitting in my favorite coffee shop, Brakeman’s Coffee, I overhear a lot of conversations while writing these blogs.
Recently, I heard a group of women lamenting over their husbands' comments about all the Amazon packages that arrive at their houses.
One of the women repeated her husband's words:
“I can’t believe another Amazon package came today! When will it ever stop?”
As I watched the woman share her husband's statement, I could see her shoulders roll forward and her head dip ever so slightly.
The way we talk about our partner's spending patterns matters. The way we spend money is a reflection of ourselves and the values and priorities we are trying to fulfill. Working with countless couples on their spending, I have seen the lasting impact that critical comments about a partner's spending problems can have.
Just like you would not say your partner looks fat, ugly, or stupid, criticizing your spouse's spending is not going to improve the situation — no matter how irrational or out of control it may be. Many times, the spending is not objectively out of line, but the spender doesn’t see their actions in the bigger context of the family budget.
Leading with Empathy
Empathy and compassion are two essential relational skills to open up conversations about spending that is concerning. Even if you feel you lack these skills, they can be developed with practice.
Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes — in this case, your spouse. One step to building empathy is to take time for reflection. Stop and brainstorm all the different pressures your spouse feels in their life and how that may lead to their spending decisions.
As an example, I perceive that my wife might be feeling some of these pressures:
- Be a good wife
- Avoid the disapproval of her mother
- Keep up with friends
- Avoid disappointing the kids
- Please her spouse
- Fear of disappointing herself
- Fear of missing out
- Look beautiful
If you are lost, you can ask her (with compassion in your voice), “What are the pressures you are feeling that influence your spending decisions?”
I understand as a spouse you may be feeling anxious, angry, or scared, and when you experience these uncomfortable emotions, it’s hard to be present in your spouse’s experiences.
When you lead with empathy, your spouse can move into a more reflective psychological state instead of a reactive, self-defensive stance, where a wide range of psychological defense mechanisms can come out.
Permanent shifts in your spouse’s spending patterns are more likely to come out of self-determination than from your criticisms or pleadings. If they happen because you say so, there is a high likelihood of generating feelings like resentment, anger, and inferiority.
Do you know your attachment history?
How about your partner’s attachment history?
When we are securely attached, we tend to have a healthy view of ourselves balanced with a healthy view of others. We trust that they will be there for us.
When we are insecurely attached, we can either become overly focused on meeting our own needs or on meeting the needs of others.
Our attachment histories have a significant impact on the way we show up in our intimate and other important relationships. Our attachment styles play into the background of our relational decision making.
Our use of money always has a relational component to it, including our relationship with ourselves and our relationships with others.
As humans, we are social creatures, and relationships are necessary for our mental health. We use money to maintain relationships.
When managing the money that flows through your life, attachment issues can show up in many areas.
Recently, I worked with a couple where the husband, who has an anxious attachment style, felt incredible distress about picking a health insurance plan for his family. He was worried about “spending too much money.” As the story goes in his head, if he spends too much money then his wife will be upset with him. This is not based on his current marriage reality but rather the memories of his mother constantly criticizing his father for spending too much money.
His young mind generalized this information into all areas of spending. Now as an adult, he is working to sort out and differentiate legitimate concerns about spending too much money and times when he needs to make the best decision with the information he has and move on.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Score and Financial Transparency
Our ability to talk openly and honestly about our patterns of spending may be impaired by childhood trauma, which impacts the development of our attachment patterns. In short, the higher our ACE score, the more likely we are to experience insecure attachment.
I had the chance to work on a research project with Dr. Bruce Ross and Emily Johnson at the University of Kentucky to test the relationship between attachment styles, ACE scores, and financial transparency. Our findings confirmed that having a higher ACE score and insecure attachment reduced the likelihood of financial transparency.
I imagine you did not get married to become your spouse’s therapist, nor did you think you would have to navigate their trauma. Yet this is the reality of life and marriage. Your spouse’s trauma history matters. Your trauma history matters.
Here is what I know from years of working with couples and from scientific psychology literature: we marry at similar levels of differentiation. Differentiation is the ability to maintain your sense of self (your identity, emotions, etc.) while in a relationship. Your starting level of differentiation in adulthood is impacted by many factors — one of the significant ones being your parents’ level of differentiation.
To improve our relationship with money and shopping, we need to improve our level of differentiation.
The Brain on Shopping
What does your spouse’s brain need?
Here’s a hint — doses of dopamine help them feel a whole lot better. Guess what can release dopamine?
This great blog post from the Cleveland Clinic highlights the effects of shopping for releasing this powerful neurochemical.
If your spouse is struggling with depression, anxiety, PTSD, chronic insecurity, or shame, these can be precursors to problematic shopping.
We need regular doses of a number of neurochemicals to experience mental health. When we cannot meet these needs from within ourselves or through our relationships, we can turn to other activities like shopping to soothe ourselves. Some people look to alcohol, drugs, sex, work, etc. for the same reason. On the surface, these coping mechanisms can all look so different, but beneath the surface, these problematic behaviors often have a common core — unresolved trauma from the past that we are trying to manage as best as we can.
If you suspect that you need help navigating these complex and layered spending patterns with your spouse, then it may be time for Therapy-Informed Financial Planning™. In these sessions, you and your spouse have a safe place to start working on your relationship with money.
Take Time Out For Personal Reflection
What has stood out to you in this blog post?
What is new to you?
What have you come to understand at a deeper level?
When it’s time to talk to your spouse in a meaningful, loving way, it’s also time for your own growth and development alongside theirs.
I have not yet seen a couple where one spouse is solely the person with the money problem; it is a complex and dynamic dance between the two partners. You each bring your own money history and experiences that have set your nervous system, emotions, and thought processes in action.
I leave you with these last self-reflection questions:
- What experiences around spending did you see in your family and with your parents?
- How do those experiences impact the way you show up now in money conversations with your spouse?
- What would you like to be able to say about the way you and your spouse talk about money in the future?
I would love to help you on the journey of talking about spending with your spouse. Feel free to schedule 30 minutes for a free consultation to learn how Therapy-Informed Financial Planning can help the two of you.
Ed Coambs -
MBA, MA, MS, CFP®, CFT-I™, LMFT
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