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:

  1. What was that fight really about?
  2. Is there any way we can resolve our disagreement — through counseling, or a calmer approach, or compromise — apart from the money issue?
  3. 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.

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Marsha
Marsha
7 years ago

Perhaps I’m just grumpy this morning, but this article makes me ask, “Is GRS now a book club?” If so, no one told me in advance that I need to read this book. It made little sense to me since I haven’t read the work of fiction in question, and most likely never will. One of the things I enjoy about GRS is reading about how real people handle money, not fictional psychopaths.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 years ago
Reply to  Marsha
Marsha
Marsha
7 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

“Fiction – including poetry – should be taken just as seriously as facts-based research, according to the team from Manchester University and the London School of Economics.” (First line of cited article)

I’m sorry, but I just don’t accept this premise.

And good morning to you, too!

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 years ago
Reply to  Marsha

Thanks! I was up working all night, napped for an hour, and made johnnycakes for breakfast. Feeling pretty good at the moment…

Anyway, regarding this:

I’m sorry, but I just don’t accept this premise.

Why??

KevinM
KevinM
7 years ago
Reply to  Marsha

I agree with Marsha. I think the end of the article that summarizes why I’d prefer not to take my fiction seriously.

Here’s the quote:
But he warned: “There’s a problem. Fiction works by appealing to people’s emotions, not their intellect or rationality.” … issues like poverty and international development were “emotionally charged” and consequently solutions often failed to take into account hard, unpalatable facts. … Fiction absolutely can’t replace factual, evidence-based analysis.”

While the author of the book may be trying to make some points about financial literacy, they may also have just been trying to tell a story.

El Nerdo
7 years ago
Reply to  Marsha

he trigger-happy spaminator ate my original reply so here is a copy: — Kevin— sure, but human life is made of such emotions. We have no mathematics that can explain why we do what we do, and that is precisely where literature can help— literature deals in human experience and things that are impossible to quantify. Science, even where most advanced, deals in very simple things— it cannot even begin to grasp the complexity of our moral existence or what it means to be self-aware. How to live? How to act? How to understand others? Quantitative research isn’t anywhere near… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
7 years ago
Reply to  Marsha

From the study’s abstract: “We find that not only are certain works of fiction ‘better’ than academic or policy research in representing central issues relating to development but they also frequently reach a wider audience and are therefore more influential.”

“Certain works” being the operative term here. Not all fiction is authoritative or accurate — we do have to be critical readers.

Marsha
Marsha
7 years ago
Reply to  Marsha

Hi El Nerdo– I was away from my computer for many hours and I’m surprised about the discussion I started. The reason that I don’t believe that fiction is as important as fact-based research is that fiction, by its very name, is not true. It is the product of an author’s imagination, biases, life experiences, etc. In the case of Shakespeare, there was also incredible political influence from the monarchy. I’ve loved reading and studying Shakespeare, but it’s not true history. I believe the true history (if it can be unearthed) is more important than the fictional works. And in… Read more »

Matt at Healthy N' Wealthy
Matt at Healthy N' Wealthy
7 years ago
Reply to  Marsha

This discussion has been way more interesting and helpful than the actual article (sorry Sarah!). Anyway, I work in research, and statistics can largely be driven by emotion, because experimental designs and readouts can be influenced by the researcher. It’s supposed to be 100% objective, but it’s not. So I agree that fact-based science should always be taken for what it is: an extremely educated guess. I think what’s most important in understanding something complex is having an intellectual framework or theory. I always use this example: statistics and facts show that people who carry matches in their pocket are… Read more »

El Nerdo
7 years ago
Reply to  Marsha

A day late, but maybe you guys will check back: @ Marsha — okay, but (as Jacq points out) “facts” are just narratives built with pieces cherry-picked out of reality. And fictions are built with bricks of reality. I’m not discounting reality of course, I’m just saying that art has a lot of truth and shouldn’t be discounted either. @ Matt — you’re a scientist, you know that science can tell us what hormones and neurotransmitters take part in a fight-or-flight response, but science cannot tell us what is it like to experience terror or rage— only narrative and description… Read more »

El Nerdo
7 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

@ Elizabeth – yes, the research was trying to match the understanding of certain problems with certain type of book. It didn’t say that all books are good for every purpose. That’s the research. But I’d go much, much further than that. I’d say reading Shakespeare can give you a better grasp of human psychology than reading a bunch of peer-reviewed articles from journals. Reading Kafka will give you a better understanding of bureaucracies than any management study. Reading Borges will give you a better notion of the infinite than some equations on a blackboard. Reading Orwell will give you… Read more »

Jane
Jane
7 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

I think we are creating a false dichotomy between “emotional” fiction and “factual” science. I’m not trying to imply that they don’t have their unique place, but to say that somehow statistics are void of emotion is just wrong. Perhaps the numbers themselves are completely unbiased (but really, not always), but emotions very often play into interpretation. I think the point is that fiction can be extremely representative and a very powerful tool, even in the world of personal finance. There appeared to be a bias in the original comment that just because the article discussed a work of fiction… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
7 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

El Nerdo, I’ve studied art, religion, philosophy and literature so you aren’t going to get many arguments from me 🙂 I write stories and take pictures because it helps me understand the world in a way that science can’t. I’m not trying to replace one with the other — rather, they’re complements. I can’t help but think that Sarah’s insight into the book comes from her own experience and critical thinking rather than the author’s effort to instruct. I think we can learn a lot from fiction — but what we learn depends on our level of engagement. Some people… Read more »

El Nerdo
7 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Hi again Elizabeth– Yes, yes of course this is Sarah’s reading. But I think she was able to read into it because the material had something that rang true and resonated with her. Good writers will create many of those “true” moments for their audiences. I think that regardless of high-brow/low-brow there is a difference between good artists and hacks– hacks repeat stereotypes, artists find new things you never expected, regardless of medium. ps- I haven’t read either of those books though I am predisposed to avoid them. 😀 On the other hand, I did really like the openingof Girl… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
7 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

@El Nerdo — I’ve never read them either, and don’t plan to. Not my taste, that’s all (but I understand the “scientific” reasons behind their appeal).

I’ve never been a big fan of the “high brow/low brow distinction” myself. You can’t compare the Beatles to classic opera — but there’s something about both that engages audiences. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said good writers create things that resonate with people. I like that.

Matt at Healthy N' Wealthy
Matt at Healthy N' Wealthy
7 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

@Nerdo – as usual, I agree with everything you said. Your criticisms of science are right on the money, unfortunately.

I think music/lyrics can be a powerful tool as well. I’m not a big fiction reader, but I love music. Sometimes the lyrics and music of a great song can help you understand your own emotions better.

amanda
amanda
7 years ago

I also read that book, and had similar reactions to it, how funny. Finally, I realized that book wasn’t really all that good anyway- not worth all the consideration that I was giving it- the whole situation was way too contrived.

MollyH
MollyH
7 years ago

Just gotta say – I loved Gone Girl too, and had the same kind of ‘train wreck’ fascination with it. That stuff could never really happen to real people, but it was just so intriguing I had to get to the end to find out what happened. I liked your article 😉

Sheryl
Sheryl
7 years ago

I feel like this kind of goes back to the old idea that the hard part of money is the emotional aspect, not the math. Of course that would hold true in a relationship: income streams aren’t always equal, money is a tool to get to live a life that represents your values, and money can be power.

LeRainDrop
LeRainDrop
7 years ago

Bummed that I can’t finish reading this post beyond the early “spoiler alert” because I am planning to read Gone Girl. If I can still remember by the time I finish the book, I’ll come back to compare reactions.

Sandy
Sandy
7 years ago

Wow, I have no interest in reading the book really, but I think your comments are spot on! It took me years and years (and I’m probably still not done) to sort out that the money challenges in my marriage were not about money. The money represented something solid, concrete and an always available subject to argue about, thus leaving me feeling emotionally battered feeling badly about myself and with no way to fix it and because I did not understand that it was never really about the money (or housework or weight, or whatever the issue du jour happened… Read more »

Kelly@Financial-Lessons
7 years ago

When I find myself invested in a book because I think its really good for one reason or another, I also can’t put it down until everything is resolved. But what I really do hate is when an author causes problems to happen simply for effect or to make the story go on seemingly unnaturally. Money and relationships really are an interesting and inevitably realistic topic though.

jessica
jessica
7 years ago

holy cow, the trigger happy spaminator ate my reply yesterday!

Jacq
Jacq
7 years ago

The book is on the TBR list and has been for awhile – thanks for not giving spoilers Sarah. Money lessons in fiction can be very profound partly because we are totally free to judge fictional characters and put ourselves into their world to see how we would behave. From Scarlet O’Hara and “as God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again!” To Walter White’s financial dependence calculations in Breaking Bad: “adjusting for inflation… Good state college, adjusting for inflation… Two kids, four years of college:. $360,000. Remaining mortgage on the home: $107,000. Cost of living, food, clothing, utilities:… Read more »

El Nerdo
7 years ago
Reply to  Jacq

YES.

Jacq
Jacq
7 years ago
Reply to  Jacq

I read the book yesterday and it was great and my above comment was sort of psychic in hindsight. If you think people like Nick and Amy don’t exist in real life… you haven’t met someone like my ex. It’s rather surreal to be having a good talk over a nice breakfast with someone who says “life would be so much easier for me if you were dead” in the same voice that you’d say “pass the pancake syrup please.” The money aspect of the book didn’t really occur to me while reading it – it wasn’t about the money… Read more »

Peach
Peach
7 years ago

Wow, Gone Girl. Reading that book was like taking a mad, crazy rollercoaster ride. By the time I was done, I was looking for a big bowl of frozen yogurt and saying repeatedly how glad I was that I was no longer married. I think the husband’s passiveness really got to me. Why? I know a couple who remind me of them. Passiveness, manipulation, spending money right and left–overspending on status symbols, and then worried about how to cover everything. They really seem to love each other, have been married for years! but are headed for disaster and it’s like… Read more »

Wm
Wm
7 years ago

I like the crux of this post, although I feel that readers would be able to relate to it more if we had read the book beforehand. Marriages nowadays are very complicated and business-like. There seems to be no simple, unconditional love between spouses. Money is also a very important element and it has the power to make or break a relationship. I feel that financial independence is of utmost importance to women and women should strive to achieve it even if their family is their first priority. Just my two cents.

Maria @ Money Development
Maria @ Money Development
7 years ago

For these matters I prefer real life stories.
Fiction is good to me like a sort of evasion, of course you can learn from that too.
If reports were more atractive & funnier it would be easier to learn from them, but reports are static and boring most of the time.
One saying “I’m sorry” but not really changing things mean there is NO communication and that is the real danger to any couple that can apply to ANY other important matter like children, sex or education.
Money is not the only thing to focus on here.

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