Financial decisions are rarely easy for one person to make — much less for two. Shared financial decision-making is common, and often beneficial, in romantic partnerships. And while making joint decisions amid the complex and fast-moving landscape of markets, tax law and estate planning demands timely, aligned action, the ideal of alignment is complicated by the reality that these decisions are based in individual life experiences, values and visions for the future.
Psychological research on intimate relationships provides us with some key insights that couples can use to guide shared decision-making and enhance the long-term health of their finances — and relationships. At the foundation of many close relationships and romantic partnerships is interdependence: each person’s mental representation of who they are as an individual becomes intertwined with their representation of their partner.i Joint financial decision-making is an integral aspect of a financially interdependent relationship.
Lesson 1: The meaning of wealth is grounded in the values that connect you
Research has shown that couples who feel they share financial values tend to be more satisfied with their relationship overall.ii A “shared reality,” the way psychologists describe the feeling of an overlap in peoples’ thoughts and feelings, is an important component of a relationship.iii One of the first steps in building a shared reality, and therefore a stronger relationship, is to identify goals and values that are meaningful to both partners — including financial values.
One way couples can find common financial values is by broadening their dialogue about wealth. Reflect on the elements that give wealth meaning to you such as your relationships with others, your impact on the world and the enriching experiences you have acquired together. Looking at wealth beyond the balance sheet provides couples with broad context to find common ground.
Some questions you could use to start a dialogue include:
- How did you learn about money growing up?
- What does success look like to you?
- What values do you think are most important and how might you express them as a couple?
- What elements of your individual experience do you want to adopt as a couple?
- What experiences do you want to have differently as a couple?
Lesson 2: Open and consistent communication about money supports successful decision-making
It is no secret that money is a common stressor for couples.iv Individual money beliefs — which stem from family history and childhood experiences, societal judgements and individual assumptions — directly influence how a couple discusses finances. Members of a couple may also be mismatched in financial literacy or level of comfort with finances. This is a common challenge and recognizing that your partner may not be on the same page can be a source of frustration on all sides.
Sharing financial needs as well as fears and anxieties isn’t easy, but the long-term benefit is a deeper shared sense of financial identity. Couples who know how to disagree while still showing responsive behaviors such as understanding, validation of their perspectives, and demonstration of care, can help lead the dialogue in a positive direction and strengthen the couple’s bond.v Transparency and open communication around money creates a pathway for shared long term success.vi And just like with any skill, practice and consistency are key to success.
Couples report that the conversation gets easier and easier. This is consistent with research on cognitive interdependence,vii which holds that over time, close couples behave increasingly as a unit and less like two independent agents. Couples often come to store and recall information in pairs and as relationships deepen, the couple’s mental representations of who they are as individuals become increasingly intertwined.viii These findings show the opportunity to create productive communication patterns around tough subjects — like money — as a part of humans’ ability to build close relationships.
Lesson 3: Learning about money together can help strengthen your relationship
Humans share a fundamental characteristic of striving to grow and learn as they develop, often using close relationships as means to pursue self-expansion.i One benefit of joint learning is the opportunity for people to help their partner reach their best self. That is because members of a couple often support each other to develop into their “ideal selves,” or people they aspire to be. People who feel this affirmation from their significant other report not only greater relationship satisfaction, but also experience movement towards their “ideal self.”ix
Joint financial learning, such as through continued education, can offer couples these opportunities to help each other thrive, financially as well as interpersonally. The process of joint learning can help increase relationship satisfaction and grow the bond — in fact, joint learning is one of the positive financial behaviors associated with relationship satisfaction in couples.vii
Couples at all levels of wealth benefit from open communication channels, joint aspirations and a learning mindset to achieve financial goals. Financial discussions may not always come easily for couples, but these conversations can bolster the communication and decision-making skills that will serve them long into their future.