Why The 4 Elements of Consensual Finances Fosters Financial Intimacy

Mar 16, 2023

It’s an ordinary Tuesday evening until we sit on the couch. The all too familiar pit in my stomach signals me that this won’t be an easy conversation, but it is one we need to have. I told my wife  over dinner that there was something financial I wanted to talk about after we got the kids down. 


If you have kids or have raised young kids, you know how hard it is to have any kind of meaningful conversation. Let alone time to talk about financial goals and desires.


We have learned over the years to meet on the couch and turn to face each other for meaningful and difficult conversations. It is, for us, part of fostering financial intimacy. 


I have been leading the conversation about buying a lake house for the last three years. It has been a sore spot in our relationship for several reasons that are important within the context of our relationship. 


Each time we pass through the conversation, we move closer to understanding what it will take to work for both of us. It does take having difficult and vulnerable conversations where we focus less on the outcome and more on a healthy, open, honest, and vulnerable conversation. 


Trusting that if we engage in a healthy communication process, we will find our way to an answer that works for both of us about the lake house. From the world of therapy, this builds on the idea you have to go slow to go fast. If you take the time to engage in a good communication process, you will get to your outcome sooner than getting mired in pushing through and causing untold damage to the relationship and yourself. 


From a Therapy-Informed Financial Planning™ perspective, four significant factors are at play in this conversation about buying the lake house. 


Power In The Relationships

In intimate relationships that value equality, ideally, there is a balance of power. Now if only it were that simple. The aspiration for equality and well-shared power is certainly worth working towards. Yet, most of us ordinary humans are on a lifelong journey of recognizing and working with our power in respectful, honoring, and helpful ways for our intimate relationships.


Many of us have varying degrees of distortion in our understanding of how much power we have in our intimate relationships. If you imagine a continuum from no power to all the power at the other end, we all fall somewhere on that continuum, and it is not necessarily fixed. There are some places where we can feel balanced in power and others where we don’t.


When it comes to money in intimate relationships, we can quickly lose our sense of power or over-rely on power as we navigate financial decisions. The mere idea of power and money can feel threatening for both men and women, depending on how money was used in their childhood, family, and community. 


In our conversations about the lake house, I want to be mindful of both the power I have and don’t have as well as for my wife. Buying a vacation rental house and using listing it on VRBO is a life and financial decision for us to work through. Part of this power-sharing was making it explicitly okay for my wife to say no. She is not ready after we talk through the current details. Therapist Dee Wagner recently reminded me that unless someone has the freedom to say no, they don’t have the choice to say yes, which is a large part of navigating power and money in relationships. 


Working with power and money in relationships is connected to consensual finances. I have violated my wife in the past with my own power and money decisions that have left her feeling betrayed. While not my intention, that has been part of the experience of our marriage. I have also worked with other partners who have misunderstood and misused their power and money dynamic and left their partners feeling betrayed. 


Consensual finances mean you do not decide against your partner's financial wishes. Thinking about it as if we have a financial body, we want to respect our partner's financial body and financial self.  

Our Attachment History Matters 


Our attachment history sets the stage for our story of what intimate and caregiving relationships are like. How we experienced emotional caregiving in our childhood has a significant impact on our felt sense of what relationships are like.


As children, we watch the adults in our lives navigate their intimate relationships and money. There is an inherent power differential between parents and children. Children's sense of what is fair, safe, and available to address about money is shaped by their family's financial socialization. 


Growing into adulthood, we bring forward one of four primary ways of experiencing intimate relationships. Each one creates a different road map in our minds, brains, and bodies about what we expect in relationships. 


The four patterns of attachment (Secure, Anxious, Avoidant, or Disorganized) I talk extensively about in my book The Healthy Love and Money Way. When we think about navigating our power in relationships and that of our partners, we must consider our respective attachment histories and what that means for our ability to work with power healthily in our relationship in general and specifically with money. 


Our Financial History

Two primary patterns relating to money from our childhoods open us to a greater likelihood of non-consensual financial decision-making. Suppose we watched our parents and family members avoid talking about money. In that case, we are left with little to no model of seeing what it looks like and feels like to talk about money openly and honestly with financial intimacy—leading us to either conduct or experience non-consensual financial decision-making. 


The other end of the continuum is destructive financial conflicts where one or both partners are attacked for how they navigate or don’t navigate money. Some accusations range widely but can include being called a narcissist, Don Juan, miser, controlling jerk, suffocating bitch, etc. emotional abuse related to money is a double whammy.


In childhood, bearing witness and living through these experiences are forms of financial neglect and abuse that have nothing to do with the family's income or wealth. It has so much more to do with the relational patterns associated with money that are experienced. 


Similar to how children that have experienced sexual abuse and neglect often grow into adults that often have difficult times with fostering healthy sexual intimacy, I have seen similar patterns with my clients in their financial lives and with fostering financial intimacy. 


Why do financial avoidance and destructive financial conflict open us up to non-consensual financial decision-making? In short, it is the absence of relational safety. In real and perceived ways, talking openly about financial needs wants, and desires may not be safe. Yet this ability to openly talk about needs, wants, and desires fosters financial intimacy. 


One of the things I hear most often from people who have lied or not shared financial information with their partner is that they do not want to be controlled, treated like a little boy/girl, or that they were being criticized for what they are doing. The real problem is not financial transparency in most cases. It is the way we are treated and what we experience when we are financially transparent that is the problem. 


Your Shared Financial Plan


The process of financial planning for couples can be highly sensitive and vulnerable. A built-in part of a healthy financial planning process includes consensual financial decision-making and financial transparency. 


For many couples, this is a journey of progressively increasing their capacity to show up for each other, see each other, understand each other, and care for each other in mutually pleasurable ways. Sadly many of us carry forward financial wounds that make it very uncomfortable to be touched financially, and there are financial positions we are expected to take as adults that feel threatening. 


In similar ways to what I have learned from the field of sex therapy, it is about sex and so much more. It is about money, and it is about so much more. The same is true for your financial life.

Helping a couple develop a financial plan becomes part of their healing journey. I have been inspired by the field of occupational therapy, which is all about assisting them to accomplish the tasks that are important to them, keeping in mind their occupational (everyday life) history. 


The ability to engage in financial planning requires many different psychological and relational abilities. If they are not present or present in limited amounts, it understandably makes engaging in an effective financial planning process difficult. In the end, financial planning can be a supportive and flexible process that evolves with the two of you and your family as you move through your life. 


As For the Lake House


We are not there yet, but we continue to get more clear about what it will take from us financially, psychologically, and relationally to be there as a couple. The difficult conversations are worth it, and returning to relational connection and safety independent of the financial outcome of the lake house makes the conversations approachable and meaningful for us. 


If you would like support in collaborating with your partner to develop consensual financial decision-making and a  financial plan that works for both of you, I invite you to schedule a 30-minute Zoom call to see if Therapy-Informed Financial Planning™ is a good fit for you. 

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