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Why is it so hard to talk about money?

Money is a subject matter which appears to be on everyone’s mind. Yet our ambivalence about talking about it contributes to so many misunderstandings among couples.

I know I’m not alone when I say money is quite a complex subject. It can stir up a lot of intense emotions, especially among our nearest and dearest.

Because of the various emotional complexities surrounding money, it makes this topic very awkward at best and difficult to discuss. The strange paradox is, money is a subject matter which appears to be on everyone’s mind, yet our ambivalence about talking about it contributes to so many misunderstandings and communication glitches — especially when it comes to our personal relationships. Why is this the case?

Money in many ways still remains a taboo subject. We’re taught it’s impolite to talk about how much something cost or how much money someone earns.

It’s a powerful symbol representing many different things to many different people. It can symbolize the comfort of being taken care of and loved, as well as bring up issues of dependence and survival. It can symbolize power, control, adoration or seduction.

In a society dominated by materialism, it’s not hard to see why money issues can shape the course of our personal relationships, too. In one survey polling 2,000 men and women, money more than sex, children or in-laws—was the most common conflict for American couples.

Psychoanalysts have their own theories as to why so many of us feel vulnerable when it comes to this area. Although the theme of money seems to endlessly get discussed, most of this talk cleverly keeps money at an arm's length away: It’s about other people’s wealth or lack thereof, how to make money, how to lose it, banking, taxes, the economy, etc. But when it comes to our personal money, it’s a very different matter. Personal money feels private. There is a loud silence in the room when we talk about our personal finances.

Attitudes about money can expose the deepest aspects of our personality or insecurities. We have a feeling, largely unconscious, that it might reveal too much about us. It might reveal our irrationality, impulsiveness and the unthought-out nature of our money attitudes.

Some theorists believe money is a way to deal with anxiety and separation issues, while others believe a lack of money may be perceived as a threat to safety and can give rise to depression and feelings of emptiness.

Erich Fromm characterized our society as having an orientation in which greed for money, fame and power have become dominant themes in our lives. Money reflects power struggles, receiving and withholding of affection or desirable things, and can also be viewed as a source of pride and shame.

Being able to identify our relationship with money can greatly help us to articulate what values are being expressed and the role money plays in our lives. Understanding money issues as well as our sabotaging beliefs about earning it and having it, can also help us to negotiate these complex issues with the people closest to us.

Most of us know that money can’t buy us happiness, but that doesn’t stop money from being perceived as the answer to some of life’s problems. The reality is, more often than not, money problems are symptomatic of deeper issues that haven’t been addressed in our relationships yet. While having some extra cash can make us more comfortable, it’s our clear that communication about money and revealing where each other’s values lie is what help us ultimately to get along when it comes to this challenging area.