Over the years, money has retained its spot as a top stressor for Americans, and it’s a central issue for couples even in the earliest years of their relationship. In fact, money arguments are more frequent and have been found to be more recurrent and longer lasting compared to other types of conflicts. More than half of Americans report that money is a cause of fights or tension in their family, according to the 2022 American Psychological Association Stress in America survey.

For new couples, talking about money may be especially challenging, even taboo. But this difficulty is not confined to new couples.

By understanding a few of the sources of financial conflict, advisors can offer clients a more personalized approach to planning.

Financial Habits Are Hard To Break
While many arguments appear to be disagreements over money management (e.g., spending and saving), research suggests that they aren’t really over the money itself. Rather, they’re about the expression of how each person values money, tapping into our own personal experiences with it, also known as our money history.

In addition to this history, we bring money habits to the equation. Prior to entering a committed relationship, individuals have generally been in control of their own money, growing accustomed to prioritizing personal goals.

Many of our financial skills, habits and attitudes that help inform these goals are shaped by our upbringing, whether we were explicitly taught certain financial practices, or simply learned along the way through observing others. But many of us were never taught how to talk about money with others. More than half of Americans say they never talked about money growing up, Empower’s 2023 “Money Talks” survey shows.

Despite the fact that most Americans in committed relationships agree it’s important to talk about finances and get to know their partner’s money history, only 46% report talking about money with their partner, the Empower survey shows. And according to Fidelity’s 2021 Couples and Money survey, a mere 38% of individuals in a committed relationship or marriage say they interact with their financial advisor together.

Power Struggles Persist
That brings to mind another source of tension. If a power differential exists—even the perception of a power imbalance—financial disclosure and discussion of financial management practices may be particularly challenging. Research led by Robert Körner in 2021 found that each partner’s perceived ability to make decisions and have an impact was a key driver of relationship quality.

When a partner feels they have less influence over the spending, it can be a major source of conflict. Even when a decision is made “jointly,” it does not always mean 50/50 because one partner may still have more influencing power, suggesting that partners do not always share the same view of the same financial situation.

Now that we’ve explored a few sources of money conflict, here are some ways advisors can promote financial harmony.

Aligning Values
At the heart of many financial conversations is an expression of personal values. Identifying shared meaning about money and financial goals can help align a couple’s vision of their financial future.

For example, if both partners prioritize education for their child, the financial concessions necessary to pursue this goal may feel less difficult because they’re ultimately supporting a family financial objective. Though couples don’t need to see eye-to-eye in every area of their finances, it’s important that they have mutual respect, support, and care for each other’s differing views.

Bridging The Gap
When it comes to advising partnered clients, qualitative data gathering plays a key role. Research shows it’s an area that could use more careful focus from financial planners. A 2021 study conducted by the Financial Planning Association revealed that planners rate themselves more highly than clients do on a host of service measures, including whether the planner made the effort to learn about clients’ money attitudes and personality traits.

Creating a discovery process that encourages both spouses to communicate their formative money experiences along with their goals, values and priorities is a best practice. The objective is for clients to express themselves as individuals yet be served as a couple. Getting this right can enable a productive and enduring client-advisor relationship. The Fidelity study found that couples who work together with an advisor are more likely to agree on a shared vision of retirement and find talking about finances easier.

Pulling together a big picture view of a couple’s finances is another way for advisors to add value and promote relationship harmony. Aggregating accounts is especially advantageous for couples juggling multiple goals, such as saving for college and retirement. It can increase financial transparency and leave both partners feeling more empowered to make progress toward their shared vision of the future.

Gathering Knowledge And Resources
We’ve only scratched the surface of the many ways today’s advisors are learning about, and adjusting to, client relationship dynamics. With continued awareness and education, and with the help of technology and data gathering, advisors have the power to identify potential issues and promote collaborative financial planning.

Dr. Emily Koochel is a senior financial planning education consultant at eMoney Advisor.