In Mint Condition: Income Disparity in Relationships

Understanding income disparity in relationships and how to deal with it.

Compatibility is an important part of any relationship. 

We’re drawn to people that we can relate to in some way, and we form connections based on shared experiences, common interests, similar goals, and other common ground. However, there is another facet of relationships that can be easy to overlook: financial compatibility. 

To learn more about navigating financial differences in relationships, we spoke with Nona Kelly, a licensed counselor who has over 20 years of experience working with individuals, couples, and families. 

illustration of income disparity

Why does money matter in relationships?

Money isn’t everything, but it does affect many aspects of our lives. “Because we live in a rather materialistic culture, many of us tend to define ourselves based on what we own or how large our bank account is relative to those in our social networks. It can feel like a disease of comparison,” says Kelly. Financial stress can have a significant impact on a person’s self-esteem, and this can lead them to project personal negative feelings onto others. “The less we have in relation to our family and friends, the worse we feel about ourselves and the more we believe self-statements about never being good enough,” Kelly explains.

When you believe something negative about yourself, it is easy to incorrectly assume that others feel the same way about you. This can lead to misinterpreting words or actions negatively, even if they were well-meaning. For example, a friend offering to pay for an expensive ticket might make someone feel burdensome or insulted, even if it came from a genuine desire to share a fun experience

When does it become an issue?

We like our friends for who they are, not what they have, but financial differences can eventually cause friction in any relationship. “It probably isn’t as important in the early stages of the friendship as it may become later on, when you start spending significant amounts of time together,” Kelly says. “Prevalent issues related to socioeconomic disparity include jealousy, being forced to make difficult financial choices, not having one’s financial boundaries respected, and treating each other differently due to stereotypes and misconceptions.” 

Income disparity plays out similarly in romantic relationships, but there are additional levels to consider, particularly when it comes to family dynamics. “People don’t commit to an individual, but rather to a family. One’s partner will inevitably hold a version of their family’s values and beliefs, including monetary identity. Thus, the opinions of possible future in-laws could have a significant impact on the couple and their relationship.”

Can you get past it?

In any relationship, communication is the key to getting past differences. “Income disparity is like any other difference between two people. Rather than downplaying or ignoring differences, we can openly communicate about them and have an honest talk about what they mean to each person,” Kelly says. Though money can be a sensitive topic, it is best to have these discussions sooner rather than later. “If any differences, financial or otherwise, truly fall into the category of ‘non-negotiables’ then it’s best to get it out into the open before significant attachments are formed,” she says. “Tough conversations are best had with as little emotional attachment as possible.” 

Tips for Talking it Out

When it comes to these tough conversations, Kelly has some additional advice. “One topic I often discuss in premarital counseling is how the couple defines words like ‘budget’ or how their family of origin related to money. A good way to start this conversation is to talk about each person’s vacations as a child or how their parents talked with them about being responsible with money.”

According to Kelly, it is best to have a series of brief conversations, as drawn-out discussions are not always conducive to healthy communication. “I suggest that as couples have these conversations they keep a list of topics they want to return to later on,” she advises. The topics need to be as specific as possible and the conversations limited to approximately 20 minutes so they do not feel overwhelming. Keep tabs on how both you and your partner are feeling throughout these conversations, as it is best to table them if emotions start running high. “Remember, words can be added much more easily than they can be taken back,” Kelly warns.

Picture of Nona Kelly, LMFT

Nona Kelly, LMFT

Thriveworks Counseling

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