When it comes to talking to your spouse or partner, which is harder to talk about: money or sex?
I get this question often. What you might not know is that most people I talk to assume that issues surrounding money, such as how much you make, how much debt you have, your spending habits, and your credit score, are more difficult to talk about than sexual practices you engage in, prefer, or would like to try. But from listening to the stories of others for the past 11 years as a therapist, I actually believe both money and sex are difficult to talk about honestly for the same reason.
Isn’t the feeling of shame what it is that makes both subjects so painful to broach? If either partner (or both) has had shameful feelings and experiences with sex or money, it’s these shameful feelings, and not the subjects themselves, that make honest conversation about sexual wants and desires, sexual brokenness, and one’s financial history and aspirations tricky to navigate successfully.
Here are some thoughts about how to talk about money or sex in the context of an established relationship:
1. Create a safe environment for sharing. Make it private but neutral ground, if possible. Remove distractions, and don’t multi-task.
2. Assure your partner that you will listen, and that there will be time for questions. Use reflective speech, such as, “I heard you say that when you don’t have at least three month’s salary saved up for a rainy day, you feel vulnerable and worried. I’d like to ask you more about that later.” Write it down, and keep notes on these conversations.
3. Take a break when you feel defensive, but honor the process of sharing. Taking a time out is fine, but don’t ditch the process of sharing because you are uncomfortable. A great way to help your partner understand how you are feeling is to simply state, “I feel uncomfortable, but I want to get to the bottom of this. Can we regroup in a few minutes?” Take time to process, especially if your way of processing out loud typically does more damage than good. If you are the one who is slow at figuring out how you feel, note your tone of voice, rate of speech, how often you wish to interrupt, and where you fall silent. These clues may help you recognize deeper feelings about the subject matter.
4. Try to present your thoughts about money or sex without reference to others. No one likes being compared to former lover or a stranger. Self-referencing is fine, i.e. “I enjoy being touched and caressed, and I would like more of that” vs. “When you touch me, you make me feel like I’m 16 years old in the back of a pickup truck with Fred”.
5. Acknowledge times you have not approached the subject with sensitivity, or you have outright hurt your partner. Ask for suggestions on how you can broach the subject again, and allow your partner to lead the conversation. However, this does not give your partner permission to emotionally pound you for admitting you didn’t handle a previous conversation about money or sex well. Acknowledgement is just that: name it, take responsibility, offer reconciliation, and consider solutions.
Similarly, if you are the offended partner, you need to let go of a past offense, and stop using the past as an excuse to not make positive progress towards honest dialogue and negotiation about money and/or sexual challenges.
If you both continue to bump heads over a problem, consider having a third party listen to you both and help you find more viable solutions.