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What Money Problems Are Really About

Money problems are rarely what they seem—focus on the problem under the problem.

Key points

  • Money issues frequently turn into power issues in relationship—about whose way will come out on top.
  • Money issues can also be about commitment, fairness, and different philosophies and priorities.
  • The key to resolving money issues is drilling down and finding the emotional problem underneath.
Source: geralt / Pixabay
Source: geralt / Pixabay

One of the tenets of couple therapy is that sex, parenting, and money are the power issues— power because it is often not about how you work together to address these issues but more about whose way will come out on top. However, money problems, more so than the other two, can take on different faces and be the tip of the iceberg for other dynamics in the relationship. Here are a few of the most common ones:

Different philosophies

Karl and Erica have been married for six years, a second marriage for both. Karl grew up in a frugal family, while Erica’s family is always comfortable running up a credit card balance. Their money arguments are over what is spending too much versus who is too controlling; Karl feels dismissed, and Erica feels micromanaged.

Here, we get into the power dynamics of money and where savers marry spenders. It’s about each having different priorities and levels of anxiety.

Parenting differences

Erica has an adult daughter who has been struggling with drug issues and holding down a job for years. Erica sends a few hundred dollars a month from her salary to help cover her daughter’s expenses. Karl is furious; they quickly argue about how much Erica is spending. But, underneath, Karl feels that Erica is enabling her daughter, preventing her from taking greater responsibility for her own life.

For other couples, a similar argument might be about allowances or paying or not paying kids to do chores or get good grades. Like overall money philosophies, it’s about power but also differences in parenting styles.

Lack of attention/Not feeling important

In addition to giving her daughter money, Erica also spends hours a week talking to her on the phone. This, too, fuels Karl’s anger—he is jealous; he feels it takes away from the time they could spend together and feels that her daughter is more important than him.

Where you put your money is often where you put your attention: If the avid stamp collector not only spends money on rare stamps but also spends hours each night tracking them down or organizing his portfolio, their partner may feel that the stamps are more important than them.

Differing visions

Or maybe the stamp collecting in the evening is OK because they both like having individual time each day. But if Karl would like to travel more or spend money renovating the house, he may see Erica’s support of her daughter as her not caring about what he cares about. They are not working toward the same goals and priorities. While their arguments revolve around money, the underlying issues are about each having differing visions, priorities, and ideas of what it means to be a couple.

Independence, commitment, and fairness

A variation on the same theme: Erica wants to combine their money like she did in her first marriage, but Karl hesitates. He did this in his first marriage, and at the divorce, he felt he got burned, having to pay off a lot of his ex’s credit card debt.

Erica insisted on a prenuptial agreement, leaving Karl feeling like she was already planning an inevitable divorce.

Or Erica leaves a large part of her estate to her daughter in her will, while Karl splits his estate between Erica and his son. This is about money but often stirs old wounds—what do you deserve? Why am I not important enough? It’s not fair.

Resolving money problems

The theme here is that money is rarely about just money. If you’re struggling with money issues, you need to step back and sort out the problem under the problem: Why is this a problem? Why is my partner upset? Again, some suggestions:

  • Avoid getting in the weeds of dollars and cents. If you and your partner are working together to corral expenses and are on the same page, then sitting down to crunch numbers and formulate a working budget is essential. But if it’s not about that but all of the other underlying issues, avoid these dollar-and-cents interrogations. It’s not about how much but about what for and why. Budget issues and credit card bills are distractions from the main emotional issues.
  • Talk about what you’re worried about. Anger is usually about anxiety; control is about anxiety. If you’re angry or controlling, talk about your worries. If your partner is angry or controlling, ask what you are worried about rather than saying "Leave me alone." This is about drilling down to the underlying fears and concerns driving your response. You want to talk about worry not only because it is less triggering and combative but also because it helps your partner understand where you’re coming from.
  • Talk about visions and priorities. Or you need to discuss your priorities and visions for the next several years—more couple time or house renovations—or for some couples, career goals like quitting jobs and returning to school versus supporting the family. This is about natural developmental changes, a reordering of what’s important to you now, or about longer-standing differences now coming to the surface—less about money but more about compatibility.

Working together to fix the problems under the problems

If it’s about different philosophies, parenting styles, or feeling neglected or not committed, talk about those issues and work toward win-win compromises: Erica agreeing to slowly reduce her monthly support of her daughter or having that difficult conversation with her daughter about enabling; Karl willing to combine some of their monies or take the leap to do so if Erica makes those changes in her relationship with her daughter.

The key here is to see money issues as drivers of other problems that are not fully addressed. Side-step these dollar-and-cents arguments by focusing instead on the underlying emotions and problems.

See money problems for what they really are.


Taibbi, R. (2017). Doing Couple Therapy, 2nd ed. New York: Guilford.

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
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