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How to Be Mindful About Money

Most of us have figured out by now that money is not the ultimate answer. 

Ellie Lisitsa

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If you’ve read Zach Brittle’s Blog Series, you know that M is for Money. M is also for marriage, misunderstanding, multidimensional and maybe, as in maybe a good thing and maybe not. We are conditioned to think of money as an ultimate goal, a passport to the land of eternal peace of mind, but in the long run we know this isn’t quite true. Most of us have figured out by now that money is not the ultimate answer. It can’t really make us happy and isn’t very good at solving our relationship problems.

It’s tempting and convenient to think otherwise, though. Think of the hassled husband (or wife!) on all those TV shows, eternally retreating into their office to escape the myriad challenges of daily life (most commonly, to avoid facing marital conflict). The pursuit of financial security as strategy for avoiding the complexities of human relationships is a common theme. It doesn’t even have to be a conscious decision at first, but it is a slippery slope! After all, we’re only human, and when faced with a choice between an intractable problem and a lovely distraction… well, we often can’t help ourselves.

Unfortunately, workplace escapism often makes things worse. Even solvable problems can become gridlocked issues when avoided long enough. Falling into these habits only increases the distance between us and loved ones, putting stress on relationships and limiting families’ ability to face challenges together. It takes a conscious effort to change our ways, and we may be helped by a change in perspective.

So let’s take a step back. What does money really give us? Theoretically, it provides that elusive sense of stability. Realistically, the picture is more complicated. Juggling work, friends, and family often gives us a big headache. We have limited resources, and the time and energy we spend making money get subtracted from what we have available for our relationships.

Even well-intentioned, dedicated, and hardworking partners seeking to support their loved ones may unwittingly send mixed messages. “I care about you and want to make us happy and comfortable” becomes hard to hear when there’s hardly any time left in which to be happy and comfortable together. Miscommunications about priorities in this department abound, and can seem unavoidable for couples  struggling to make ends meet.

But none of this is new. Here’s what is. M is also for mindfulness. As Dr. Gottman writes in The Relationship Cure, “Most people don’t get married, have children, make friends, or take jobs with the intention of allowing these relationships to fail. And yet that’s what often happens – simply because people don’t pay enough attention to the emotional needs of others.” In short, “If you don’t pay attention, you don’t connect.”

Whether money is something that addresses your basic needs (for food, shelter, etc) or is a way to buy luxuries, the bottom line remains: it is the people around you who enrich your life. You can struggle together or get by comfortably, but your relationships ultimately determine whether you live in joy or misery. As the saying goes, “The real measure of your wealth is how much you’d be worth if you lost all your money.”

Take Zach Brittle’s advice and talk to your partner about what money means to each of you. Is it a symbol of security? Freedom? Power? Oppression? Something to be saved or spent? As Dr. Gottman explains in The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work, money is often symbolic of deeper emotional needs, and resolving financial differences typically requires “balancing the freedom and empowerment money represents with the security and trust it also symbolizes.” A couple whose philosophies on the topic align perfectly is rare, but fortunately for those of us whose relationships don’t fit that model, there are some creative approaches to money that can bring couples closer together. You can read more about these approaches here.

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Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

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