Darling, have you been spending our money again?

Being broke puts an obvious strain on any relationship, but differing attitudes to money can also be a serious source of conflict.
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The Independent Culture
LOVE, DESIRE, the possibility of children and an overwhelming need to sleep in the same bed for the rest of your lives is what usually drives couples to set up home together. Show too much concern about the finances when you embark on domesticity and you risk seeming unromantic and tight-fisted. So most of us let things drift, avoiding actually having to sit down and organise how to divide the costs of two lives that have been joined together.

In the rare situation of both earning roughly the same amount and with similar financial priorities, you could simply carry on like this. Contributing equally to the dull expenses of living while being able to treat each other in a delightfully spontaneous manner "Darling, lets go eat Italian tonight - it's on me!".

For most of us it is not that simple. One half usually has the financial edge over the other and is damn well going to use it at some point: "You ungrateful bastard, I paid for this entire holiday and you complain about the hotel!" While one wants to squirrel their money away, the other lives by the jolly chant of the spendthrift: "You can't take it with you, you know!" Money matters can soon creep down among the very foundations of relationships until things start to look very shaky.

No surprise then that a recent survey by Prudential and women magazines found that financial worries were the major source of disagreement in married and cohabiting couples, with the arrival of children only adding to the likelihood of money-related flare-ups. Financial friction before children tend to be about attitudes and value-systems, with a touch of competition to add spice to the rows. Once kids are on the scene then the whole situation becomes much more complicated and fraught.

Tony and Judith Reich are a typically frazzled couple with children, both with demanding but not particularly well-paid jobs as an engineer and midwife. Both children go to after-school clubs and Tony looks after the children on Judith's weekend shifts.

Tony feels that "both of us are amazed at the relentless slog just to keep everything going financially. I see how tired Judith is and feel terribly guilty that I haven't provided more for her. She sometimes gets upset about not being able to afford to spend more time with the children and says that she didn't think it would be as hard as this."

Judy Cunnington, director of the London Marriage Guidance says that couples bringing up children do have to withstand the greatest financial strain: "All the resources of a couple in this situation are stretched to breaking point, not only financially but emotionally and physically as well. It is what people used to call poorhouse fever, because when money seems to be thin on the ground, then everything else in your life seems to become threadbare. Neither of you is able to offer the other support, because you are both caught in a spiral of fear and insecurity, so all other problems get pushed out of the way."

Struggling to make ends meet definitely seems to add to the daily stress and tension of a relationship. Prudential recommends having joint bank accounts as well as a separate personal account each, using direct debit systems for bills and mugging up together on pension and saving plans. But when couples who actually are quite well-off come into conflict over financial issues then it would seem that "money problems" are often used as an umbrella to cover more complicated issues within the relationship. Issues that are possibly far more difficult to fathom than who pays the bills, or deciding if you are a spendthrift, a chancer or a secret shopper.

Sarah Bailey and her husband used to earn a similar amount working in advertising but the fact that she had two children close together means that she has had to take a considerable time off work. They are still very comfortably off.

"I know that we should both try and be philosophical about this, but actually the imbalance of the situation seems to permeate everything. He acts like a big, swinging you know what even in the home, while I am forced into the domestic drudge role. I could be earning as much as him and yet he seems to feel that his only responsibility is financial. We are both extremely resentful of each other because I feel that he is using his position of wage-earner against me and he thinks that I am turning into a right old harridan. We have never felt further apart."

Adele Shapiro, a psychotherapist who works with couples feels that "how much we value ourselves is so bound up in how much we earn, so that money becomes a potency issue. When a woman is used to having financial independence then it is very difficult for her to adjust to the new situation of having to rely on her husband for money. She feels a lack of power and he may find himself, perhaps unwittingly, undervaluing her. The true values of partnership and the idea of both working on the joint project of the family get forgotten and pushed aside."

There are no sure-fire solutions either to real financial problems or other issues which are being disguised as money worries but seeing a financial advisor could be a start to sitting down and trying to talk to each other. Martin Roberts of Martin Roberts and Company specialises in helping couples sort out their finances.

He says that "many of the couples I see are second-time-arounders who want to make sure that they have the situation sorted out from the beginning this time. Perhaps those that have been divorced are particularly clued up to the importance of getting things straight because they may have had bitter experience of the way in which emotions can be channelled into vengeful divorces with serious financial implications."