Lessons on money and relationships, from fiction
Saturday night — Sunday morning, really — I stayed up almost all night reading, in one mad dash, Gone Girl. I slunk through half the day like I had a hangover, kicking myself, trying to figure out why I liked it so much when I didn't actually like it. I had to just press on through and get to the very last page, even though I didn't believe any of the characters could exist in real life. They were as if real people with real problems had their natural inhibitions removed, so that the things we would imagine in the heat of anger or frustration or love actually happened.
That's probably why I liked it so much. That and the money.
It's always about the money
It seems like half of the TV crime shows I've ever watched include someone, at some point, saying, “It's always about money.” (Life used that mantra as a thematic device in one of its episodes.) In Gone Girl, the two protagonists, a married couple, have a very complicated relationship with money; she has it, he doesn't, really. At one point in the book (spoiler alert!) it is revealed that someone has opened several credit cards in the husband's name and bought a boatload of stuff no one wants with the money. The husband borrows from the wife, the parents give money and take it away, the wife steals from the tip jar. Almost every relationship in the book, and most of the crisis points, are complicated by money.
You would keep reading, too, right? I had to know what happened with the credit cards! And the stuff no one wanted! Could they sell it on eBay? I wondered, so worried for the poor guy's credit (when I think I was supposed to be worried if he'd go to jail).
The part that upset me was the fictional conversations about money
Magazine writer from lower-class roots meets trust-fund girl. That's the way the book was set up. And when the couple started arguing a few years into their marriage, I felt the conversations were all contrived around this set-up. The husband would get huffy or defensive or resentful about the wife's money. “You just don't know what it's like to have to work for a living!” he said, a few times. “You don't understand what it's like to worry about money!” She would roll her eyes, think him paranoid or overly sensitive. The fight would be over; one of them might say, “I'm sorry,” but no one would talk deeply about it. Fight resolved; money issues not resolved.
It's never about the money, actually.
This was the thing about that episode of Life, too. Everyone kept saying it was always about the money. But it wasn't, not for anyone. I think three people ended up murdered because the son was jealous that his mother was more nurturing and loving to another young man his age. Would you murder anyone over money? Of course not! You're far too reasonable.
But can you imagine it? Probably only if there was a huge amount of emotion underneath it — anger, jealousy, fear, or despair.
Couples have bad money relationships all the time. We know that. But, in Gone Girl, I was particularly struck with how the money issues would come up as a device for a fight. “You are too good for me” (or “you think you're too good for me”) is, “you don't know what it's like to be poor.” Maybe “you are lazy” or “you are taking advantage of my generous nature” comes out as, “why can't you get a __ job?” (Safe, secure, professional, white collar, union, whatever the relationship may be.)
I think this is really, really typical. You fight about the money issues because they're concrete, they seem as if they have solutions. They are a matter of dollars, adding and subtracting, carrying forward.
But what we don't do is let them go.
I don't finish up a fight about money and then, swipe my hands together in satisfaction. Made that unkind cut about how he bought a bunch of new suits for his non-existent job with my money! All done! Whether or not the resentment hangs on — it almost always does, in the book to disastrous results — the money part needs to be hashed out. And what's more, it needs to be decoupled from the argument. Let me say that again: the discussion about money needs to be stripped away from other emotional arguments, over love, or relative privilege, or each partner's happiness and fulfillment over their jobs, or what sort of leisure activities are appropriate, or addiction.
This is, while great advice, way harder than anything else we'll ask you to do here. Way harder than bond math. (I should know. I can do bond math. I still haven't managed to decouple my argument with my husband over the food budget from the underlying disagreement about values.)
To find a solution to money problems from Gone Girl is patently ridiculous. I won't do more spoilers, but it seemed at the end that trust would never return to that relationship, let alone a neat parceling of financial worries and their emotional underpinnings. But I think the lesson we can take away is that we should always come out of a fight about money asking ourselves three questions:
- What was that fight really about?
- Is there any way we can resolve our disagreement — through counseling, or a calmer approach, or compromise — apart from the money issue?
- Now: have we resolved the money issue in a sustainable way?
Nick and Amy, after the fight over relative privilege in which he bought a whole bunch of suits (and, after getting to the end of the book, I question whether that suit-buying incident actually happened), should have found a way to discuss their differences and similarities without making it about money, and then returned the suits, or come up with a budget that might last them through the indefinite layoff period more reasonably, or something. It wouldn't have done well for the arc of the plot.
But it sure would have made me sleep better at night.
We've talked a lot lately about money and relationships, and El Nerdo has a great mantra about not seeking external opinions on our relationship debates — about how bringing in a third person's opinion only complicates the problem. I think this is right on, so I definitely don't suggest that in the “resolving our disagreement” part — don't ask your mother or friend what they think of your money woes, and bring that back as “evidence” you're right. I do think sometimes it's helpful to get counseling about a particular problem, not to find the “right answer” but to more calmly negotiate the disagreements. And maybe you can go into the sessions more efficiently if you've thought through a problem, separating money from emotion. I also think getting separate counseling, one for emotional struggles and one for finances, might make sense; but definitely don't bring the emotions to the financial planner! That will be the worst money decision of all.