Money -- or more specifically lack thereof -- can be a major source of marital strife. And don't assume that "If I were a Rich Man," all these problems would disappear. The reality is much more complex. There are particular struggles in being poor as well as unique challenges to being wealthy. Ethics of Our Fathers advises, "The more property, the more worries," as any homeowner can attest to. While plenty of discussions about money get stuck on quantity, money's psychological impact on our lives and relationships may be a more central issue, and the real battleground.

As with so much in our lives, our parents' attitudes towards money have shaped ours. Take Sharon. Her parents constantly fought about money. Her father had many harebrained schemes that were going to make them rich. Despite his efforts, his dreams went unrealized, the bills began to pile up, and Sharon's parents continued to fight. Now Sharon is happily married to David, a stockbroker with a steady income. But if he ever speaks of a hot tip that will be their ticket to instant wealth, Sharon explodes. It's not rational and it's not David's fault. It's old money memories and associations being triggered today.

Perhaps your mother worried constantly about the bills. The atmosphere in your home was tight and constricted. Now that you're on your own, you're reveling in the joy of spending your money -- perhaps beyond your income. Maybe your husband asks you to tone it down a little, and immediately you're transported back to mother and her overbearing restrictions and fears.

Until we understand them, our attitudes toward money and its role in our marriages will be tainted by our early childhood experiences.

Maybe your father was a spendthrift, enjoying the latest "toys" but a little cavalier about the phone bill. You've become very adept at saving, and saving, and saving. Your wife wants you to "live a little" and the thought is terrifying.

The past shapes the present and until we understand them, our attitudes toward money and its role in our marriages will be tainted by our early childhood experiences. It's not your spouse you're reacting to; it's your mother or father. If you don't recognize that, it can lead to serious marital discord.

Money is intrinsically neutral, but it can mean so much. It can be a source of security or anxiety. It can be an opportunity for power or a reminder of impotence. It can be used to improve lives or destroy them. It can lead to greater freedom or serve as a yoke around our necks. And just as our parents' attitudes affected us, our attitudes will impact our children. If we recognize and eradicate our own "shtick" about money, we won't have to bequeath it to our children.

So take a few moments and examine what attitudes you're unconsciously teaching. I suggest asking yourself these questions. Do it with your partner -- it's a lot more interactive than seeing a movie on "date night."

  1. What is your earliest memory connected to money? (That doll you wanted but never got, your parents quarreling, your great uncles pinching your cheek and giving you a dollar etc.)

  2. What did your mother teach you about money -- by her actions, by her words?

  3. How about your father?

  4. Did your parents do something with their money that you respected?

  5. Did they do something you disliked or that embarrassed you? (Something deeper than that gaudy living room furniture.)

  6. How do you feel when you have a lot of money? A small amount? Did the atmosphere in your home change accordingly?

  7. How much money do you want?

The answers probably won't change the balance in your bank account but they may provide a deeper understanding that could ease the tensions surrounding this issue. There's no real connection between wealth and happiness ("Who is the happy person? One who takes joy in his lot." Ethics of the Fathers, 4:1) but there does seem to be a significant link between figuring out your emotional relationship to money and true peace of mind.