Do YOU hold the purse strings in YOUR relationship? Financial stresses equal relationship stresses. It is demoralizing to have to ask for money and humiliating to feel as though you have to beg. Humiliation is a real force in partner struggles and leads to a sense of disempowerment. It is important to acknowledge that imbalances in income and wealth are likely to create difficult power imbalances within your relationship, particularly if one partner feels they have less influence over spending than the other, (Kirchler et al., 2001; Sutton et al., 2003).

Ask yourself: On a scale of zero to ten how empowered do I feel in this relationship?

Differences in money make everything complex and its not about the money per se but about the power associated with it. Money inequalities can create power problems and exacerbate already existing power struggles. Today in the West people on the whole see their relationships as partnerships between equals – based on love, sharing and equality. Yet within a relationship there are often widely differing opinions about saving, spending, and planning. Marriage is a partnership and as such both parties need to be involved in the finances. Yet money in many relationships can be a taboo subject which couples are loathed to discuss with each other. And despite the many new forms of partnerships that we see in modern society today men and women are still in very unequal bargaining positions and the new forms of relationships are still rarely truly egalitarian.

The problem is that many of us think we are much more innocent in our use of power in our relationships than we actually are. Pahl (1989) found that when male partners controlled finances, both male and female partners were less happy with their relationships than when responsibilities were shared.

Ask yourself: Who has the final say over major decisions about spending, particularly in relation to large one off expenditures? Decisions about major expenditures often involve a lot of deliberation and consequently bring to the surface differences in underlying values or attitudes which are usually hidden.

One of the partner’s having money gives that partner ‘the edge’. The other is left feeling disempowered. You feel disempowered because you experience the other as taking power. As a result the disempowered partner finds a way of doing something which produces an equal or similar effect on the other partner….. and the drama begins. The conflict that ensues remains unresolved and neither party gets their needs met. In the end the partner with less power will ultimately withdraw. This is because the disempowered partner feels as though they have absolutely no power and that their needs or wishes are of no consequence or concern to the other. So why bother engaging with the other? This apathy leads to less and less emotional involvement until the relationship is not much more than an empty shell. Power struggles over money can look deceptive, they don’t have to look like struggles or conflict but they can also present themselves as less and less calmer fights with growing estrangement.

Most of us don’t want power in our relationships, we simply want to be equal partners. Power works in opposition to love. “You must be joking? We can’t afford that” versus “Let’s talk about it“. The latter is an empowering statement indicating to the other that they have a voice, and it will be heard and respected.

Ask yourself: Do I prevent my partner from getting what they want and in the process ensure I get what I want? If the answer to this question is ‘yes’ then you have more power. And that’s really not a good thing. It means that you are getting more of your needs met at the expense of your partner.

So you both need to become conscious of your power moves. This will enable you to resolve your conflicts. Call your partner out on their power moves when they take place. Explain why you feel it is a power move. Allow your partner to explain their side of the power move. You must accept each other’s definition of what the power move was. If one partner says its a power move then its a power move. Try to understand what each is saying. Be curious about how you could have done things differently. At first this will be difficult, but keep practising. If the situation feels as though its getting out of hand then call STOP and stop means STOP.

Ask yourselves: Do we want to keep fighting about this? Or do we want to find an amicable solution? It is not the problem itself that is the problem, but the dynamics of the struggle that produces the problem. So ask yourselves: How can we level the playing field?

Schedule a financial date with your partner. Sit round the kitchen table with your accounts or in front of an accountant or financial planner. This is the only way the two of you will be able to find an arrangement that repairs the annoyances and hurt. Focus on both your needs and this will lead to an end of the power struggles around this issue. Talk about arrangements that focus on both of your greatest needs. Consider how you will determine who contributed the most? Who did the most? Who suffered the most? Who sacrificed the most?

It is important to be open and honest about your financial realities. Ascertain exactly the real role money plays in your conflicts. Perhaps there are more seriously issues lurking in the background. Issues such as secrecy about where the money goes, hidden debt, credit card issues, failure to stick to agreed budgets, bills not being paid on time, and bad credit ratings. It is important to discuss these issues with a real desire to understand each other. You will not make progress until you each understand where the other is coming from.

Experiment: Imagine as a couple that your resources and responsibilities were equal? What would you do then? How would you arrange things? What are the decisions you would make? Doing this will present you with alternative courses of action. You may even find the solution to your financial woes.

If you need to talk about your situation with a professional – contact us:


Kirchler, E., Rodler, C., Holzl, E. and Meier, K., (2001), Conflict and Decision Making in Close
Relationships, Hove: The Psychology Press.

Sutton, L., Cebulla, A. and Middleton, S., (2003), Marriage in the Twenty-First Century, CRSP 482:
Cardiff, Care for the Family.

Pahl, J., (1989), Money and Marriage, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Vogler, C., Lyonette, C., & Wiggins, R. D. (2008). Money, Power and Spending Decisions in Intimate Relationships. The Sociological Review56(1), 117–143.