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Money: "Generosity is part of love"

Psychoanalyst and author Peter Schneider discusses the role money plays in relationships – and why couples find it so hard to talk about it.

Beatrice Schlag: Why is money often a central issue in relationships?

Peter Schneider: Money and love are closely connected. That's clear from the fact that people like to give each other gifts. Sometimes they can afford it, sometimes they can't. But money plays a particularly important role when couples separate or divorce; it becomes a focus of conflict. Since you can't force someone to love you, people fight about money instead.

Divorce attorneys tell stories of men who, long before any separation, hide away their assets in case of a divorce.

That reveals something else: The man stashes away his money because he no longer feels loved. He is withdrawing from the relationship in every respect. It's financial fraud, obviously. But no one hides his money if he's happy with his partner.

Can a love relationship work if one partner is generous and the other tends to be stingy?

One option is for them to keep their finances separate. But that makes even simple things, like going out to dinner or taking a trip together, very challenging.

Are separate accounts a solution?

Generosity, also in financial matters, is part of love. When it is one-sided, problems arise. People like to act as if money were just money, with no further significance, but in fact it expresses more than that in a relationship.

Many couples find it easier to talk about sex than their income. What is it about money that makes it such an intimate topic?

We would like money to be simply a means to an end – rather than something that touches us to the core. When money reaches into our intimate relationships, it contaminates intimacy. It turns sex into prostitution. That is one side of the story. The other is this: It is precisely when we are determined to keep something out that it forces itself in. Cleanliness is inconceivable without dirt. Over and over again, money becomes a factor in intimate relationships.

How should a woman respond if her husband refuses to discuss his income?

Even if he earns enough for both of them and she has no need to worry about exactly how much he makes, he is demonstrating a lack of trust. That isn't good for an intimate relationship.

Surveys have shown that money is a much bigger problem for younger couples than for older ones.

That makes sense, since older couples tend to have more money. And money helps to smooth over life's difficulties. The more money you have, the less attention you have to pay to it.

How should a man respond if an attractive woman lets him know that she's interested not only in him as a person, but also in his money?

He may feel great. The big mistake is to believe that money is only a superficial factor. It is absurd to think that you might be loved only for yourself. If you eliminate your external qualities, such as physical appearance, bearing, status and money – what is left? People are loved for the sum total of what they have to offer. Money isn't necessarily part of it. But you shouldn't be upset if money is part of what makes you attractive. We delude ourselves today that we can experience intense emotions without any financial consequences.

Where does that delusion come from?

Children are taught that a homemade gift is more valuable than something that is purchased. But they all know that a homemade gift is not what they themselves want. And it's rarely what they receive.

How generous should you be?

Of course, you shouldn't spend beyond your means too often, or exceed your resources by too much. But extravagance is part of love. In literature, the most magnificent kind of love is also the most ruinous. Over the long term, such relationships are unrealistic. But an occasional touch of impracticality can have a very positive effect on a loving relationship. Most people are happier to receive an impractical gift than a pocket calculator – although this may not apply to obsessive types who get a thrill out of reading their bank statements.

Happiness researchers have found that beyond a certain monthly income, a substantial increase in salary doesn't make couples happier.

I am living proof that the theory that money doesn't bring happiness doesn't always hold true. Ten years ago, I was earning about 10,000 francs per month. I now have considerably more work and earn more than twice as much. My wife and I are much happier, and money certainly has something to do with it. Money makes relationships less stressful and more enjoyable.

So does money make people happy, after all?

Of course. Money makes countless things possible that bring happiness. People are happy when they can go out for a special dinner and treat their friends. They're happy when they're able to buy nice things. I don't define myself in terms of such purchases, and I find it excruciatingly boring to spend an entire evening talking about them. But you can't tell me that they don't make life more enjoyable.

Peter Schneider, 57, is a psychoanalyst, university lecturer, columnist and author.