Author Essay by Aliya Ali-Afzal

I’ll show you mine if you show me yours, and does size matter? I am in fact talking about credit card debt!

 

Money is one of the top causes of arguments in romantic relationships and one of the main causes of marriage breakup. Yet it is a subject we avoid talking about and is still a taboo, not only when we are dating, but even in long- term relationships.

 

Research by Merrill Lynch in 2or8 showed that respondents “ranked nearly all major relationship milestones—including meeting their prospective in-laws, being intimate, traveling together, and discussing politics—ahead of discussing their finances.”r For most couples,  conversations about money are some of the most awkward and difficult, and the ones we avoid, whether it is at the start of a relationship or even years into a marriage. In 2or8, Scientific American reported that a survey by Wells Fargo concluded that 44 percent of Americans find it harder to discuss personal finance than to discuss death, politics, or religion.2 Additionally, Time magazine reported that despite money being the main cause of divorce, 4o percent of couples don’t discuss how they manage their money.

 

In our ideas about romance and love, it feels unseemly and almost cold to bring up the notion of finance when it comes to issues of the heart. After all, love is about finding your soul mate, about passion and physical attraction, about a meeting of minds. How and why would we even factor in cold hard facts about salaries, credit card debt, or a reckless approach to saving for pensions in the middle of such a cherished relationship? Besides, what does it really matter? Surely these things are secondary and things will just work out once you’re together, because love will fix everything, won’t it?

 

Unfortunately, things are not that simple, as I discovered when researching the link between financial health and relationship health for my novel Would I Lie to You? The problem is that we don’t face these issues until it is almost too late. A poll of over 2,ooo British adults by the legal firm Slater and Gordon found that in the UK, too, money worries were the top reason for married couples to split up and the main cause of arguments.

 

It is clear that we need to talk about money, so why don’t we just do it?

 

It is not as if we close our eyes to all aspects of finances as we enter into long-term relationships and marriage. We pick up on clues about a new partner’s earnings and finances from where they live, whether they rent or own, the kind of car they drive, or if they talk about giving to charity or splurging on dream vacations. You can certainly get an impression of a person’s financial status without having to talk about it. Depending on how much that impacts your decision about your future life partner, you can factor that information in or not when thinking whether to proceed with the relationship.

 

It is not wealth or lack of it, though, that can be the make-or-break factor in long-term relationships. Money can come and go, but it is our personal beliefs and attitudes and relationship with money—how we approach it, what it means to us—that can cause problems down the line, especially if your perspectives are very different. The tricky thing is it is very hard to find out about these things at the start of a relationship and it sometimes feels impossible to raise your concerns about it, even in a long-term relationship. My personal experience of this partly inspired the idea for Would I Lie to You? I never thought about discussing our financial habits when I got married. I was madly in love, and although we talked vaguely about what we had and what we could afford, we didn’t go much further. We were both at the start of our careers, so money was tight, but that was okay. We were young and both in solid careers, and we knew, in time, our financial situation would improve. What we didn’t realize, until much later, was that we were polar opposites when it came to our attitudes toward money, and nor did we have any idea about how much this would impact our relationship.

 

As weeks turned into months and then years, the differences started to become more obvious. He was a saver, and I was a spender. What I considered“essentials,” he viewed as “extras.” Where he worried about retirement, I worried about not seizing the moment and forgoing experience, such as travel, to save for “one day in the distant future.” Now that I write it all down, I can see that this always had the potential for huge problems in our relationship. At the time though, we laughed off each other’s financial “quirks” and hoped that we would find a happy middle ground between our two differing perspectives. Besides,   it felt strange to talk about money. Not only were the conversations awkward, but they also quickly descended into uncomfortable stalemates. Our spending habits seemed to be such embedded traits that there seemed to be no point in trying to ask each other to change our thoughts or habits around money. We knew that we could never convince the other to see our point of view, so we agreed to disagree and try to compromise for each other as we went along.

 

This was okay, until we reached crunch points, such as when I became a stay-at-home mom and, later, when my husband lost his job. Both of these brought the money issues that we had managed to avoid to the front and center of our relationship.

 

So why do couples avoid talking about money so vehemently? Because the money talk is never just about money. If the talk were as simple as a balance sheet about earnings and expenses, it would be easy. The fact is money represents much more than that, doesn’t it? It can mean power, status, control, judgment, freedom, security, self-worth, and self-image, along with so many other things that pack an emotional punch. It also feels as if a part of us that we think we can’t control is being attacked, and so the conversation can feel confrontational. Our relationship with money is not just based on our personality or habits but is also influenced by how our parents and family approached money when we were growing up. It may seem the most natural thing to you to put aside savings and never touch them. In the novel, Tom’s family motto was “never touch savings,” so for him, what Faiza did would be an absolute deal-breaker and go against everything he had grown up believing in. For Faiza, who still bears the mental scars of watching her parents fight over money throughout her childhood, it is her knee-jerk instinct to avoid arguments about money, whatever it takes, even if that means lying to Tom.

 

I have always valued my financial independence and have earned my own money since I was sixteen. Although we had shared finances in our marriage, I still loved the fact that I had my own money too. When I decided to become a stay-at-home mom for a few years, the loss of my income left me feeling vulnerable, even though there was no logical reason to feel like that, as it was something we could financially afford. During that time, I became very sensitive if my husband asked me about a purchase I had made, even though he was doing it with no ulterior motive. It simply sparked off a raft of emotions and insecurities around losing my earning power and, in turn, my independence. My husband grew up in a household where money was never an emotive issue but approached in a practical way. He saw nothing wrong with discussions about the latest credit card bill. When he saw how much this was upsetting me, we started to avoid these conversations, even when it got to the point when we should have been having them. It is a very common story.

 

And yet, we must overcome these fears and discomfort and talk about money,  for the sake  of our relationship in the long run. The topics that cause the biggest conflict and thus are the ones we avoid are debt, savings, spending habits, and joint finances. All of these factors can have a direct influence on our daily lives and future plans. I have worked for over fifteen years as a life and career coach in London and have come across countless clients who are struggling with having open conversations about money with their spouses, even though these are the people closest to them in the world. They fear being judged for poor financial choices or causing conflict by asking their partner to rein in their spending. And for those going through a career transition, there are concerns about how their loss of salary will impact their relationship. Often, it will take a crisis or a change in our circumstances to force us to that point, such as if one of you loses your job or decides to become a stay-at-home parent, as in my case, and which is something I also explored in the novel. Issues can also arise when you get unexpected income, not just when you lose it. There are stories of couples arguing about how to spend lottery winnings or an inheritance. A couple in England who won over £roo million in the lottery reportedly split up two years later after arguing about how to spend the money. This also illustrates that arguments about money are never just about money.

 

The unresolved financial disagreements simmer if not discussed, and over time, the frustration and anger partners feel leads to distance, arguments about other aspects in a marriage, and a lack of trust and communication. The end point for most people in this situation is divorce.

 

As I searched for articles about the sort of financial secrets people keep in relationships, I realized that this is a problem for couples across the globe. There were advice columns in Germany about hiding a “running away” savings fund from a partner, an article in India about a wife discovering her husband had gambled their savings away, a man in the U.S. discovering a few weeks before their wedding that his fiancée had over $1oo,ooo in credit card debt, and a young woman whose relationship broke up because her boyfriend refused to stick to a budget to save up to buy an apartment.

 

Nor is this a new phenomenon that has developed in modern times. When I was writing Would I Lie to You?, my mother told me a story about a family friend, with echoes of my novel. It was about a young mother with three small children and her husband, who had an important, high-profile job. The events took place in Pakistan five decades ago. The young wife had been spending beyond the family’s financial means and had ended up taking out several loans from a local money lender. When she was unable to pay these back, the lender threatened to tell her husband and to expose her in the community. Devastated at the shame that this would bring upon her husband and unable to confess what she had done, even to her closest friends and family, she took her own life. I didn’t hear this story until after I had written my novel in London in 2or9, and yet the themes are so similar in both.

So the advice from marriage counselors and from financial advisers is the same. Find a way to talk about money with your partner and see if you are compatible in terms of money, not just in other ways. The main challenge is to do all of this in a way that minimizes the emotional aspects of the “money talk” and to find a way that a couple can assess not just their bank balances and bills but also their different approaches to money. The secret, they say, is to approach the task as a way to make it all work for your future goals and as a shared project. Once these issues raise their head in a long marriage, talk about debt, spending, financial infidelity and shared savings targets, and, above all, remind yourself that this is about the practical business of money, not you as a person.

 

This is where we find Faiza and Tom at the end of the novel. They have started the process and are getting over the discomfort of this new space and enjoying the relief of being on the same side, without secrets or judgment. Their conflict around money will not be resolved entirely overnight though, and as Faiza says, they are a “work in progress.”

 

So what about me? Have I had “the talk” with my husband yet? Well, after skirting around the issues for decades, writing this novel gave us a chance to talk about money in a safe, nonconfrontational way. This has been a most unexpected and very welcome by-product of writing this book! By talking about Faiza and Tom’s story, my husband and I finally found a way to talk about our own story too. We did this by discussing the questions the novel raises and the importance of seeing each other’s financial point of view. My husband understood why it was an emotional topic for me, and I understood that his approach to money was simply looking at a balance sheet, which is the way he had been brought up.

 

I hope that perhaps others who read Would I Lie to You? can use the story to bring up the topic of money in their relationships too, so that as well as Faiza and Tom, many more couples can have a financial happy ending!