How couples answer one question shows whether they communicate well about money, Cornell research finds

Personal finance

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When couples face financial stress, the best approach is to talk it out.

But new research from Cornell University finds that is often the opposite of what happens.

“When people feel stressed, they are more likely to think that if they initiate these conversations with their partner, it’s just going to lead to a fight, which is going to make them more stressed,” said research co-author Emily Garbinsky, associate professor of marketing and management communication at Cornell.

Whether couples successfully address their financial issues largely comes down to how they answer one question: Are those differences perpetual or are they solvable?

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What successful couples do differently

Couples who say they feel their financial problems are perpetual are more likely to assume they have no solution, according to Cornell’s research.

Partners may feel they have fundamental differences in how they think about money, and therefore it’s not worthwhile to have a conversation where no solution exists, Garbinsky said.

Instead, if the couple views their issues as solvable, and can reflect on times when they previously were able to reach a compromise with their partner, they are likely more willing to talk about money, the research found.

Unfortunately, most couples by default tend to view their financial problems as perpetual, and therefore avoid talking about financial issues, Garbinsky said.

Communication avoidance may also contribute to financial infidelity, where a partner will withhold or hide financial information from their partner. The instinct to hide information may also be a strategy to avoid a fight, Garbinsky said.

Over time, a lack of communication — whether it be simple avoidance or financial infidelity — can harm a relationship.

“If you’re not talking and if you’re hiding things from your partner, it is having negative effects on your relationship quality over time,” Garbinsky said.

How to find a ‘middle ground’

To get past a money stalemate in a relationship, it helps to first acknowledge that it’s human, said Jude Boudreaux, a certified financial planner who is a partner and senior financial planner with The Planning Center in New Orleans.

Often people develop a way of approaching money based on their past and what makes them feel most comfortable, said Boudreaux, who is also a member of the CNBC FA Council. For example, growing up without a lot of money may lead someone to want to have a large savings cushion as an adult.

But rarely do savers marry other savers or spenders marry other spenders, Boudreaux said.

To start to unravel financial conflict, it helps to backtrack and talk about the money memories each partner has and how that shapes their feelings about money now, he said.

It also helps to frame possible decisions in a way that helps each partner feel at ease, Boudreaux said. That includes asking questions like, “What are ways that you might feel more comfortable if we were to make these decisions?” and “What would you need to feel heard going into this conversation, and then to be able to feel confidence coming out of it?”

After years of mediating these kinds of conversations for couples, Boudreaux said it’s important to go in with an optimistic approach. While one partner can take steps to be more conservative, the other may agree to be a little more aggressive.

“Often there’s a middle ground,” Boudreaux said.

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