When a meeting with your accountant becomes couples' counselling

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I have an old school friend (let's call him John). He was your classic introvert, preferring the simplicity of numbers over complex relationships, trading basketball cards over playing sport, chess over parties. John's superpower was numbers.

Following school, John found he was a natural accountant, and quickly became the managing partner in a small accounting firm that specialised in small "mum and dad" businesses.

You can imagine my surprise, when we reconnected in our 30s, and he revealed with some bewilderment that when couples came in to get their finances in order, more often than not it turned into a couple's counselling session.

accountant couples counselling money arguments relationship

You can imagine how hilarious that was for me to picture this small, socially awkward, introverted, number-loving accountant being thrust into high-empathy and sometimes quite tense discussions about interpersonal issues. Turns out this is a common experience of many accountants and financial advisers.

Money and relationships are easily the two most emotionally charged areas of our lives, and when one area suffers the other area often follows suit. People often come to John when their finances are a mess or their business is in trouble.

When he asks for the reasoning behind a particular spend, investment or trade-off decision, the thinly veiled relationship issues are exposed and various emotions are thrust into the spotlight.

The reason one partner spends money on luxury items might be because it's the one thing that they control, feeling micro-managed in every other part of their life. Resistance to making a large investment in property or extra staff in order to maximise an opportunity is often based in fear of losing the relationship if it all went south.

Looking at your finances is a powerful window into your emotional life. We all have experienced this when we have to do our tax at the end of a traumatic year, and all the emotions attached to specific events that impact our finances come rushing back.

Power, control, trust and personal identity ... if any of these things are unbalanced or fractured in the relationship, maladaptive financial behaviours often develop to fill the need - the void created by the break-down. We feel bad, incomplete, so we spend, invest or make decisions that make us feel good in the short term, but have significant long-term effects on financial and relational health.

Whether it be stubbornly saying no to an obvious opportunity, or consistently spending in wasteful or risky ways, learning to talk about and negotiate better ways of doing things is key to healthy relationships and financial success.

If you're the partner of someone who is making poor financial decisions, before you confront their perceived misstep it may be worth asking yourself why they might be driven to make this choice in the first place. What is the void they are trying to fill? What can you as a couple do to address the feeling that is driving the decision making? How can you be each other's champion toward a happier, healthier life? If you're the one making the poor choices, then it might be time for an honest self-reflection.

Maybe it is precisely because John doesn't complicate things and takes a simplistic matter-of-fact approach that he became the perfect negotiator in the ever-complex realm of human relationships.

People go to John to fix their finances; he saves their relationship. Turns out John's superpower wasn't numbers, 
it was truth.

Three ways to keep the peace

1. Stop lying to yourself

The truth will set you free. Be honest about why you feel or do something without falling into the trap of making justifications.

Absolutely enjoy the freedom that finance can bring, but make sure you're not using it as a band-aid to cover some deeper emotional wound or unmet need.

2. Learn to negotiate dispassionately

Leave your emotion at the door when talking with your partner - this is the only way you will truly be able to listen to each other. Emotion is a survival instinct that shuts down listening for understanding and prepares us for action.

Talking is about understanding and learning, not action. When your emotions kick in, take a deep breath, focus on your partner, and ask a question about what they just said, because you're likely to have missed it. If your partner becomes emotional, be patient, wait for them to calm down and regain control before continuing the conversation.

3. Take care of the small things

From little things, big things grow. Address things when they are small and somewhat inconsequential.

The longer you leave it, the bigger the problem will get and the more painful it will be to resolve.

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Phil Slade is a behavioural economist and psychologist and the author of Going Ape S#!t! and founder of Decida. He works across digital innovation, strategy and cognitive bias.