Dealing with strong emotions

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We explore strong responses to talking about money and the ways you can work through it to have more effective conversations.

When you discuss sensitive topics such as money with your partner, your individual responses can be both conscious and unconscious – sometimes we are very aware of our feelings when we’re in a heightened state, other times not so much. 

Negative responses can slow down and derail conversations, making it difficult to have further discussion about the topic.

If couples are open to talking about the ways they both react, tension and negativity can be diffused before it causes too much damage.

Pick a response:

Withdrawing

Withdrawing can be an unconscious ‘flight’ reaction due to the feeling of discomfort – even if tension levels seem low. 

Some people withdraw or shut down when faced with a difficult conversation. For this person, it feels easier to avoid the conversation, or not have it at all.

People who withdraw in these situations, often feel overwhelmed, cornered, judged, or even unsafe. 

This can leave their partner who is wanting to address an issue feeling frustrated and wondering if they even care. 

Withdrawing can be an unconscious response, particularly for those who have experienced difficult situations in life previously. It can also be a defensive move in order to stay in control and avoid confrontation – real or imagined. 

However, for those who are internal processors – stopping, going quiet or shutting down could simply mean they need some time to work through their thoughts before they are confident to talk about them.

These reactions aren’t right or wrong, they simply are, and need to be understood.

Think about why your partner is responding this way – so if and when these reactions do occur, you can respond in a way that supports a solution, rather than increases stress.

Below are some conversation responses you could use:

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"Maybe we should take some time and come back to this later?"
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"I can see this isn’t working - maybe we take a break?"
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"It feels like we are in different places with this. Do you want to just leave it for today?"
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"Ok, maybe we just take a break and finish this another day?"

Financial issues arise in every relationship, and conflict is common – strong conversational muscles are needed to navigate this space. 

Avoidance or withdrawing may work in the short term, but in the long-term other solutions may be necessary to finish the conversation, so everyone is feeling heard, and their needs are being met.

Blaming

If you’ve been together a while, it is possible that each of you has been labeled (fairly or unfairly) by the other and the “you always do that” reaction becomes normal.

Old arguments can loom large, and long­-term resentments can be a real barrier to effective communication.

Many couples get stuck pointing at excuses for financial problems, rather than focusing on solutions.

Even if someone has made bad financial choices or decisions, pointing those mistakes out may do more harm than good.  

It is important to look at the bigger picture and work out how to come up with an agreed plan to set things back on track.

Conversations are much more productive if they are solution-focused, rather than problem-­focused.

Think of something that you’ve been meaning to find a more workable solution for. 

Together write the problem down, and then list a few possible solutions. 

Narrow your list down to one or two best solutions, talk over the pros and cons, pick one and take some action on it.

Not only does brainstorming ideas together bring out the best possible solution, but it will also bring you and your partner closer together and give a stronger sense of dual ownership when you work as a team finding and implementing solutions. 

Rethink

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Our money is so tight right now, and it doesn’t help that you keep subscribing to that car magazine!

Try

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Our finances are feeling tight right now, maybe we could look at our spending and see what we can change?
🤔 Rethink
"You spent way too much on your motorbike – it wasn’t in the budget!"
✅ Try
"I see our expenses are a little high this month, do we need to adjust our budget, so you have more money for your motorbike? Maybe we could change the discretionary money so it’s separate to our other expenses."

Escalating and catastrophising

When even the slightest bit of a threat is felt, some people instantly go on the offensive; escalating the emotional level of a discussion because they are feeling uncomfortable, afraid, or anxious. 

It can also be a reaction to feeling trapped, attacked, blamed or guilty.

Whatever the reason, it is an unhelpful way of coping with a difficult situation.

When this occurs, the person exhibiting the behaviour is often unaware of the effect their reactions are having on their partner and the conversation.

Escalation often occurs when the conversation jumps off-topic or feels personal.

If this happens, try to lessen the pressure by acknowledging the discomfort, explaining how you are feeling or taking a break if needed.

Some ways to answer the above response could be:

  • “Ok maybe we can talk later, I can see my timing might not be the best. My intention was just to have a conversation not to make you feel uncomfortable or pressured.”
  • “It would be good if we could talk about this. I’m not blaming you for anything. I just want to understand our finances better.”
  • “I know money is a tricky topic. I hoped we could have a look at our finances together and maybe make a budget that works for both of us.”
"Ok maybe we can talk later, I can see my timing might not be the best. My intention was just to have a conversation not to make you feel uncomfortable or pressured."
"It would be good if we could talk about this. I’m not blaming you for anything. I just want to understand our finances better."
"I know money is a tricky topic. I hoped we could have a look at our finances together and maybe make a budget that works for both of us."
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If it is you that is prone to escalation, try to understand that this is what is happening. 

Take some time to reflect on the conversation and work out why you feel so uncomfortable. Without blame, try to put it into words so you can explain how you are feeling – the conversation can then be shaped in a way that supports each person’s perspective.

Invalidating

It is important that both parties in a relationship have their thoughts and feelings recognised and respected. 

During the conversation, views may change, be proven wrong, or unhelpful, however that doesn’t mean they weren’t valid at the time. 

We all see the world differently and those views can change – meeting a person where they are in the moment and validating their perspective, is what matters.


“It doesn’t feel like we are ever going to get out of debt – it’s so frustrating.”

Rethink

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"Don’t be ridiculous. There is nothing to worry about."

Try

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"I know we have a lot of debt and it can feel like it’s never going to be gone. I get frustrated too, but I think if we keep working on our budget, we will get on top of it."

When you don’t share the same values and beliefs, agreements about issues may not come naturally or easily.

But invalidation, as demonstrated above, derails a conversation, increases the frustration, and keeps couples from achieving some form of shared understanding. 

When someone feels like they are not being listened to or respected they can quickly become heightened, or shut down altogether – neither are constructive nor useful.

Sometimes it can be helpful to explain the ‘why’ in your conversations. 

If you can express the feelings behind your thoughts it can help your partner better understand what you are thinking. This will lessen the chance of your feelings being dismissed and provide some insight into your thinking.

This could look like:

It is important that any view is acknowledged as being real and valid, no matter if it seems insignificant or unnecessary to you. As a partnership, both views are valuable and relevant and need to be respected.

© Good Shepherd NZ and AUT, 2021

Good Shepherd NZ has built this toolkit in collaboration with Dr Ayesha Scott of AUT’s Finance Department.