Money is an emotive subject. Money issues are the biggest cause of divorce and suicide in the world. What is it about money that causes this problem ? Money has been around for thousands of years, so is money the problem, or is it the way we live our lives that causes such conflict and anxiety. In order to understand this issue we need to look at how the brain handles money. In evolutionary terms money is really new. Humans split from the rest of the ape family about 7 million years ago and for 99.9% of the time since then money has not existed. Even the way we handle money now has only been in place since the industrial revolution. Before then, less than 10% of commonly used goods and services were bought in the market. We lived in villages and most human needs were taken care of by the family and the community. Traditional agricultural economies had few surpluses and those people who had real money, kings and the aristocracy, were a tiny proportion of the population.
300 years later, everything we do now involves money, and most of the time money is not even physically present at the transaction. But we don’t think of money as simply a medium for facilitating the transactions of goods and services.
Instead, because of what it can do, money becomes intimately tied to our basic needs – food, sex, shelter, and security. Money becomes embedded in our brains as a core survival issue. Core survival issues, and our behaviour around them, are driven by the instinctive parts of our brains. Losing your wallet produces the same fear reaction in your mind as a loud bang or nearly being hit by a bus. For those people who have money anxiety, thinking about credit card debt, or mortgage arrears also triggers a fear response. If money represents security, bills become an attack on our security, and any attack on our security triggers an emotional response.
How does our relationship with money develop? How does money become a core survival issue?
Our money patterns develop in childhood as we absorb the money messages given out by the people closest to us and the broader cultural environment. Children are sponges. The infant brain is designed to learn from anything and everything that is going on around it, and much of that starts by being alert to the social world. Children pick up on social cues long before they learn to speak. They notice the comments we make about money and each other, and when we argue and fight, we send negative messages to our children about money. Because of the way the brain works in childhood, these messages and memories are stored and money becomes associated with emotions like conflict, guilt, anger, betrayal and fear.
In addition, our relationship with money – how we feel about it, how it makes us feel – isn’t generally discussed. We enter adulthood with our unique money stories. Each one of us is different and even in the same family, siblings will have different relationships with money. We end up with this strange situation where we have no training or real understanding about one of the things that our society collectively values the most. We can’t live without money, but often nobody has shown us how to live with it.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, when it comes to couples and money, quite a lot !
Each partner will have their unique money story and we don’t usually take time to discuss and understand each other’s’ stories and feelings about money. It’s not what you talk about at the beginning of a relationship and, because it’s not something we generally do anyway, then it never takes place. As a couple, you will generally be fine for a while but when circumstances change, the underlying tensions can really manifest them themselves. Money decisions are made from an emotional perspective and this means they are sub conscious, instinctive and often driven by fear.
How do wealth managers negotiate this minefield?
The first thing to recognise is how we think about money and, in particular, our own money. This means understanding the emotional component and that your clients will relate to their money in a completely different way to you. Your thinking process and their thinking process will be different, and, in addition, each partner may be thinking differently.
Secondly, clients may need to be guided to develop joint goals for their wealth. This means defining their values and ensuring their savings and investment strategies are aligned with those values.
Thirdly, a good Wealth Manager recognises that this process is not simple nor intuitive. They may need to create a framework for open discussion and healthy dialogue. As part of this process, ask each partner why they have made certain choices and explore using different communication preferences and ways to present information to each partner.
Lastly, be aware that money tensions are highest when there are sudden changes in wealth or other circumstances. For couples that cannot agree, ask them to consider how they can show up differently rather than continue the cycle of reactivity. You can also suggest that they consider Couples Money Coaching.