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Most engaged couples don’t immediately seek financial advice from a marriage counselor. But listen to Ed Coambs, founder of Healthy Love and Money, when he says money is a primary contributor to marital struggles and divorce. According to the financial planner turned marriage counselor, working out some of the wrinkles early on in your relationship will go a long way in your pursuit of wedded bliss. Coambs shares some advice that might specifically benefit a newly committed couple.

Q. How Important is Financial Transparency and Conversation to a Happy Marriage?

The APA (American Psychological Association) commonly ranks money as the top stressor in American life. A lot of misunderstanding and hurt feelings can emerge around money. In my practice, I often find that money problems occurring after 10 to 20 years of marriage had their roots in unresolved conflict early in the relationship. So your ability to talk to your partner about your financial lives, where you’re at today, what you have going on, how you’re expecting things to look in the future … will have long-term implications.

Q. What is the Best Way to Broach the Subject and Start a Dialogue?

Candid conversations around money can be awkward for people who are in the engaged stage of a relationship; they’re still in an idealistic, almost fantasy state. One of the things I encourage is slowly testing the waters with some basic questions about your partner’s financial life and seeing how he or she responds. What kind of debt do they have, how much money do they make per year, what are their financial goals, how did their parents interact with money?

If they are receptive to having these conversations, it’s likely you’ll be able to set the tone for open dialogue throughout your married life. Financial conflicts aren’t likely to improve on their own; it’s far more typical that they’ll get worse as life becomes more complex.

Q. What if My Partner Brings Negative Past Experiences about Money to Our Relationship?

Families are always interacting with each other around money, and frequently those experiences are painful. That can set an internal mental template around money being a dangerous, hostile or threatening topic: something to avoid. It’s important to understand that and work toward making peace with your past – and helping your partner do the same – so that you can separate what’s happening today from what happened in the past.

Q. Is There a Way to Test or Improve Our Financial Compatibility?

You can think about the objective reality of money: how important it is to you and to your partner, how much money you each have and what you want to do with it. But what’s usually more problematic is the relational side of money. Do you feel safe, secure and comfortable talking about money with your partner? What are your fears, concerns and history with respect to money? Can you talk about these things with your partner and know they’ll not be judgmental? If you have that type of relationship, then it’s much less likely you’ll have insurmountable problems. Inevitably, there will be challenges, but you’ll be able to work collaboratively to come up with agreeable solutions.

Q. What Are Some of the More Common Problems Couples Experience?

When I work with couples, I ask them to think about what it means to them to share financial intimacy and how they can go about achieving this. How do they feel comfortable coming together? When one person is more controlling or dominating around money, the financial conflict is much more likely to increase. If there’s criticism, contempt, fear or shame around money, that’s going to quickly shut down your financial communication.

Couples need to think about their starting point when they have the tougher conversations. And they need to be as open and empathetic as possible.

Another way to think about this might be to understand that people develop different attachment styles. If you have a secure attachment style, you’re going to feel pretty comfortable engaging in relationships with your intimate other and trusting that they will understand you. If you’re on the anxious side of attachment styles, you’re never really confident; you tend to look to the other person to meet your emotional and relational needs. The person who has the avoidant attachment style is much more emotionally self-reliant but has a hard time trusting other people.

As you come to know yourself and the way that you experience relationships, it can create new opportunities for understanding why you (and your partner) show up the way you do around money.

Q. Have You Seen Couples or Individuals Successfully Change Their Financial Behaviors?

Yes, absolutely. I don’t want to mislead anyone; it’s not as simple as me telling you, “Do these five things.” Psychological change is challenging. It often comes out of a willingness to be more honest and accepting of yourself and what you’ve experienced in your life – and then also gaining that bigger perspective to answer the question, “Why is my partner making these decisions that seem so irrational to me?”

This information and recommendations contained herein are compiled from sources deemed reliable, but are not represented to be accurate or complete. In providing this information, neither KeyBank nor its affiliates are acting as your agent or are offering any tax, accounting, or legal advice.

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