Why can’t we talk about money?

Financial disagreements are a chronic source of conflict for many couples and families. Financial literacy resources, self-help books, and the experts who write them frequently refer to ‘common sense’. But there is conflict among authors about what is commonsensical.

Arguments about money appear to be more a result of communication patterns than resources or power. In other words, how much money a couple has or who earns the most matters less than how you talk about money. But the researchers and authors are yet to adequately address the issue of how to communicate effectively about money.

While arguing about financial matters does not appear to predict divorce, it is an important indicator of relationship satisfaction. As Adrian Furnham writes in The New Psychology of Money, money isn’t only a frequent problem in marriage. People also use it as a powerful weapon in divorce.

Whether money is the root of the problem, or merely a symptom of other issues, couple’s therapist Shapiro emphasises that discussing money openly is crucial for all couples. Yet couples attempting to solve conflicts about money (rather than chores) are more likely to end up in a self-defeating cycle. One explanation is that money may be ‘more closely tied to underlying relational process, such as power, touching many aspects of individual and couple functioning or feelings of self-worth or self esteem’.

Why can’t we talk about money effectively?

From the conversations I’ve had and the reading I’ve done, I believe there are two key reasons it is difficult to communicate effectively about money.

Firstly, as a symbolic system, money means different things to different people.

Secondly, money (whatever it means) is often considered taboo, precisely because it is related to power, self-worth and self-esteem.

These two facts have conspired to not only inhibit effective communication about money, but also inhibited research on how to communicate effectively about money, exacerbating the problem.

Where does the language of money fit?

Thanks to the multiple meanings money has, it is unclear which academic domain (or more likely, combination of domains) is best equipped to explore the language of money. Social science researchers like psychologists and linguists have generally assumed that money-related behaviours belong to the field of economics. Meanwhile, economists tend to focus on macro, societal-level behaviour rather than micro-level interpersonal communication or individual behaviour.

The complex nature of money, interwoven throughout so many facets of our lives, eludes traditional disciplinary boundaries, which may explain the hugely successful investor Charlie Munger’s heavy emphasis on interdisciplinary thinking, combining approaches from different fields.

03TalkIn the next post, What is money?, we’ll explore different types of capital and what it really means to be rich. Later, I’ll post a video that takes a further look at the question of why we can’t talk about money.

Read more about me and why I decided to start Enrichmentality.

This post is the second of a 10 part series over 10 days introducing Enrichmentality.


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What discipline(s) do you think the question of money belongs to? Let me know in the comments.

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