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Money & Lifestyle: ‘No shame, No blame’– What happens when couples talk about money?

31 Jul 2018

When talking about money with your partner, you know the #1 Rule don’t you - no shame, no blame?

Our colleague, Carl Richards, takes up the subject in his latest series on “Talking About Money” in which he suggests finding a cap and writing on it, ‘No shame, no blame’ and putting it on whenever you talk about money with your partner.


I used a similar approach in the 1980s when talking to people about investments. I had two hats, a red one and a blue one. When I had my red hat on we could only talk about their plan and not investments. When it came time to talk about actual investments I’d put my blue hat on and away we’d go. At that time investors only wanted to talk investments. It was so ‘hot’ and I was in danger of missing the important stuff about where they wanted to go and wider issues.

Sometimes a physical prop is a helpful reminder.

Carl describes a typical couples conversation about money like this –

  1. You and your partner really need to talk about money, but it’s hard, so you tend not to.
  2. You finally get brave and start the conversation.
  3. No matter how hard you try, you end up shaming your partner, or your partner shames you. It doesn’t matter, because either way …
  4. The shame makes you or both of you clam up, or you get angry. The conversation ends, and it’s even harder to get it started the next time you try.
  5. Ooops. Now you are back to not talking about money.   

But hang on, what is shame in the first place? I recall there is a difference between shame and guilt and that the difference is important. One is not productive at all, while the other one is quite a normal, healthy feeling. Which is which?

Carl quotes Dr Brené Brown, famous for her TEDx Houston talk on Vulnerability and another on Shame. Dr Brown explains that shame is something we internalise, and we capture it with a statement like, “I’m a bad person.” We make it about ourselves. There is something wrong with us. Shame is closely related to blame, another pointless exercise.

With guilt, we focus on the action and say, “I made a mistake.” Guilt is about the event.

For me, guilt is a normal, healthy emotion that I should experience (nearly) every day. But shame is a useless, negative emotion that eats away from within.

So, when we are talking with our partners about money, it is fine to put up our hand and say, “I screwed up. I’m guilty as charged.”

What we should avoid is an attack on the person and their sense of self and instead, talk about the action or event. This means labelling my partner as something-or-another is out. What is in is talking about the action or event. When I depersonalise the problem, it helps the shame go away.

Can you have that money conversation again without shaming or blaming? It ain’t easy because we can never know exactly what will trigger another person’s shame. But it is sure worth a try.

Keep asking great questions …

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