Lesson 4 of 7 - optimize your relationships

Q&A About
Money Problems"

Most of them aren't
really a
bout money!

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is  https://sfhelp.org/relate/qa/money.htm

Updated  02-15-2015

      Clicking underlined links here will open a new window. Other links will open  an informational popup, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site. If your playback device doesn't support Javascript, the popups may not display. Follow underlined links after finishing this article to avoid getting lost.     

      This brief YouTube video previews some of what you'll read here:

      This article offers...

  • questions typical adults should ask about common family "money problems,"

  • brief answers and links to more info; and...

  • answers to additional questions average divorcing-family and stepfamily members and supporters should ask.

These questions focus on minimizing marital and family stress around financial issues, not investment strategies. To get the most from these Q&A items, first read...

  • the intro to this Web site and the premises underlying it;

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 4

  • mastering three common relationship stressors, and

  • options for analyzing and resolving most relationship problems.

Universal "Money" Questions

1)  What are common marital and family "money problems"?

2)  What causes all these surface problems?

3)  How can we prevent and/or permanently resolve our marital and family "money problems"?

4)  What are values conflicts, and how do they relate to "money problems"?

5)  What are loyalty conflicts, and how do they relate to "money problems"?

6)  What are relationship triangles, and how do they relate to "money problems"?

7)  Is there a best way for family adults to negotiate financial decisions?

Divorcing-family and Stepfamily Questions about "Money"

8)  Do typical divorcing families and stepfamilies have "money problems" in addition to those in intact biofamilies (Q1)? Yes.

9)  Do they have additional primary problems (ref. 2 above) that cause these stressors? Yes.

10)  Is there a  best way for stepfamily mates to manage their money? Yes.

11)  Should stepparents and step-grandparents include step(grand)kids in their wills and estate plans?

12)  Is there a best way to handle vehicle, health, medical, and life insurance in a divorcing-family or stepfamily? See the answer to question 3.

13)  How can we pick an effective stepfamily financial advisor?

14)  How can we resolve our major family arguments over financial "fairness"?

15)  Are there any "money" books written for stepfamily adults?

If you don't see your question here, please ask!


Q1)  What are common marital and family "money issues"?  

      Though details vary infinitely, there are common themes to surface "money problems" in typical families...

income amounts and allocations

checkbook management

investment decisions and management

kids' allowances

loans, and gifts to family and charities

wills and estate plans

retirement plans

saving vs. spending

debt management




insurance coverages

expense management

prenuptial agreements

Each of these can cause significant conflict and stress in and between family homes. Stress often blooms over several of them at once, combined with other marital and family "problems"

      "Problems" are unfilled needs (discomforts). Without exception, each topic above can be a significant stressor, but is NOT the real issue. Each is a symptom of several underlying primary problems which people (like you?) are often unaware of. If adults focus only on trying to resolve surface problems, they're likely to recur and/or multiply. See Q2 below.


Q2)  What causes all surface "money problems"?

      At least five factors:

One or more family adults has inherited psychological wounds and ignorance, and they don't (want to) know that, what the wounds mean, or what to do about them. And typical adults...

Don't know what they need to know about effective communication and problem-solving, so they aren't motivated to learn communication basics and seven problem-solving skills (Lesson 2). A corollary is typical lay people and family professionals...

Don't know how to avoid or identify and resolve values conflicts (Q4), loyalty conflicts (Q5), and associated relationship triangles (Q6). And typical women and men...

Aren't aware of how they try to resolve their "money" (and other) problems, so they focus fruitlessly on the surface (secondary) disputes, and grow frustrated because of many of these communication blocks; And...

If conflicted partners seek professional help to resolve disputes over "money" (or other issues), they can't find consultants who know the prior four problems and what to do about them.

Does the premise that "all 'money problems' are not really about money" seem more credible now? Do any of these primary problems apply to your situation?


Q3)  How can we prevent and/or resolve our marital and family "money problems"?

      By patiently committing to steps like these with the other people involved:

  • Adopt a long-term view, vs. just reducing immediate conflicts.

  • Agree that your money problems are surface issues, and commit to resolving the primary problems that cause them (Q2 above) - as teammates, not opponents.

  • Redefine all your "money problems" as "We need to (a) admit and reduce our psychological wounds and (b) learn how to problem-solve effectively together."

  • You and each "conflict partner" commit to progressing at Lesson 1 (reducing psychological wounds), and put that among your top five life priorities. In all situations, learn how to empower your wise true Self to guide your other subselves.

      As you progress at this vital work together, also... 

  • Commit to learning how to problem-solve effectively (i.e. to progress on Lesson 2), and add this to your top life-priorities. This includes learning how to avoid and resolve values conflicts (Q4 below), loyalty conflicts (Q5), and relationship triangles (Q6) together.

  • In non-emergency impasses, put your integrity and wholistic health first, your primary relationship second, and all else third, without excessive guilt, shame, and/or anxiety.

  • Invite other people affected by your "money problems" (including any professional helpers) to read and discuss this article and take appropriate actions. If minor kids are affected, help them understand what you're doing and why, in age-appropriate language.

  • If you're in a divorcing family or stepfamily, see Q8-Q15 for more steps.

  • For "extra credit," consider alerting others in your workplace or school, church, community, region, state, or nation what you're learning here.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - how do you feel about these three "money" questions and answers, so far? Are you motivated to take the steps above now? (No > sort of > yes). If not, suspect that a well-meaning false self is controlling you.


Q4)  What are values conflicts, and how do they relate to disputes over "money"?

      This brief YouTube video previews what you're about to read. The video mentions eight self-improvement lessons: I've reduced that to seven.:

      Can your family adults and older kids clearly define (a) a value, (b) a values conflict, and (c) how best to avoid and resolve such conflicts?

      Many surface disputes about money occur because people have different values - priorities, preferences, habits, and rules - like "I'm a spender, and you're a saver;" and "I'm conservative, and you're a risk-taker." Values conflicts occur all the time between (a) your dynamic personality subselves and between (b) your subselves and those which control other adults and kids.

      So as mutually-respectful partners, help each other learn to spot values conflicts and evolve a co-operative strategy to (a) compromise peacefully or (b) agree to disagree. Popular (false-self) alternatives are arguing, manipulating, avoiding, procrastinating, debating, blaming, power-struggling, trying to convert the other person (win), whining, explaining, pretending, making superficial changes, and numbing out.

      None of these lose-lose strategies fill your or your partner's primary needs. Note that one common need causing surface money problems is the primal drive for current and long-term security. Notice what it feels like to say "We have a disagreement over security, vs. "...over money / debts / savings / expenses / investing / gambling / etc."

      As you partners get better at spotting and resolving values conflicts, teach the kids in your lives how to ident5ify and master them! Did your early caregivers do that for you? If you don't do this - who will?

      Stay aware that two requisites for avoiding and resolving significant values conflicts over anything are...

  • your true Selves are steadily guiding your personalities (Lesson 1), and...

  • you and any partner are gaining fluency in these seven communication skills (Lesson 2). 

Do your family adults have these requisites yet?

      For more perspective on resolving internal and interpersonal values conflicts together, see this.


Q5)  What are loyalty conflicts, and how do they relate to "money problems"?

      This brief YouTube video previews key points here. The video mentions eight self-improvement lessons in this site: I've reduced that to seven:

      Try saying your definition of loyalty out loud now. Are you loyal to some people and not to others now? Do you need and/or expect some adults and kids to be loyal to you? How do you assess loyalty?

      Loyalty conflicts occur when an adult or child feels impossibly torn between supporting either of two or more conflicted people s/he cares for and/or needs. Any choice risks the unchosen person/s feeling slighted or abandoned, hurt, and resentful. No choice risks all other people feeling hurt. 

      Loyalty conflicts are a type of values conflict (Q4 above). They occur among personality subselves as well as people - e.g. is your Nurturer subself more loyal to your Shamed Child or to your true Self? Loyalty conflicts often have two parts - an inner values or loyalty conflict, and an interpersonal conflict.

      Disputes over "money issues" (Q1) and financial values often polarize family members into opposing camps. This often promotes interactive loyalty conflicts that can quickly multiply into a web of concurrent disagreements, antagonisms, and associated relationship triangles (Q6 below). In other words, marital and family loyalty conflicts often don't stand alone.

      Options for the person 'in the middle"...

  • check to see that your Self (capital "S") is steadily guiding your other subselves. If not, free him/her up or lower your expectations

  • encourage all of you to be objectively aware of your communication process as you work toward resolution. In particular, watch for common communication blocks which can amplify the original conflict or add new ones!

  • check for multiple inner and interpersonal conflicts, sort them out, and focus on one at a time. Resolve inner conflicts (between subselves) first, and then re-evaluate your interpersonal conflicts. This requires clear self-awareness, patience, and an accurate knowledge of your active subselves. See Lesson 1, Part 3.

  • if you have a stake in the conflicted-person's problem/s, invite them to use win-win problem solving as mutually-respectful teammates. If they can't or won't, use the Gestalt and Serenity Prayers and assert your needs and limits firmly and respectfully.

  • encourage brainstorming for compromises that are acceptable enough to everyone, without taking responsibility for "fixing' the other people's problems;

  • acknowledge the loyalty conflict and describe how it feels to the other people involved, without blame or guilt; - e.g. "I'm feeling torn in the middle of a loyalty conflict. I want to support each of you if I can - I don't want to take sides." If the other people don't know about these conflicts and are open to learning, teach them;

  • if circumstances permit, ask each of the opposed people something like "What do you need from me on this conflict now?" - and then listen empathically, without judgment. They may need something other than what you assume!

  • affirm (a) each person's personal rights and dignity (self-respect), and (b) your respective responsibilities to meet your own needs. Conflicts involving kids are more complex because they depend on one or more of you to fill certain needs.

  • If the "money" conflict involves primary partners (e.g. "Who do I support - my mate or my parent?") and no viable compromise appears, put your integrity and wholistic health first, your relationship second, and everything else third, except in emergencies.

  • See every major loyalty conflict as a learning opportunity, rather than a frustrating obstacle to overcome.

      Recap - encourage all your family adults and older kids to...

learn what loyalty conflicts are,

develop a common language to describe and discuss them together, and...

evolve a mutually-respectful strategy to resolve them when anything sets them off, not just money.

As you do these, help each other develop...

  • your awareness of (a) values conflicts (Q4) and how recognize and resolve them, and (b) how to spot and unhook from relationship triangles (Q6 below); and develop...

  • all seven communication skills, including how and when to dig down below surface clashes to identify the unfilled primary needs that cause them.

      For more perspective on loyalty conflicts, see several articles starting here.


Q6)  What are relationship triangles, and how do they relate to "money problems"?

      This brief YouTube video previews what you're about to read. The video 9ntro mentions eight self-improvement lessons: I've reduced that to seven.:

      In any group, circumstances can cause three people to unconsciously adopt complementary roles (attitudes and behaviors) called the Persecutor, the Victim, and the Rescuer. These roles polarize their relationships in stressful ways.

      The Persecutor hurts the Victim in some way - e.g. shames, punishes, threatens, scorns, ignores, taunts, insults, and/or abuses him or her; and the Rescuer defends the Victim. This can easily trigger one or more loyalty conflicts (Q5 above) and lose-lose power struggles (I'm right." NO, I'M right!"), which compound everyone's stress.

      PVR triangles are toxic because they foster reciprocal hurt, frustration, anger, guilt, disrespect, and anxiety - specially if they're chronic. Triangles inhibit family teamwork and loyalty by promoting alliances, coalitions, and antagonisms among some members in and between homes and generations. Stressful PVR triangles also happen among your personality subselves all the time!

      Many things can trigger family PVR (relationship) triangles. A "money-triggered" triangle happens in under a minute, when a father (P) sarcastically calls his wife (V) irresponsible and frivolous about spending their money. She glowers and denies this, and he belligerently escalates his criticisms. Their 16 year-old son (R) then tells his father to shut up and leave his mother alone. Limitless variations of this involve senior parents, adult siblings, minor kids, in-laws, friends, teachers, financial and legal consultants, and others.

      Can you think of a PVR (relationship) triangle that occurred in your family recently over a financial issue or something else? What was the outcome - did anyone benefit or get their needs met? Do your family members know what these triangles are and how to manage them? Did your childhood adults know how to do so? Did they teach you how? Are your kids learning how to spot and manage triangles yet?

      The first steps family adults can take to avoid or dissolve triangles are to (a) learn what they are, and (b) discuss and agree on why they're harmful to everyone. Then (c) evolve a family vocabulary to use in describing and managing triangles - e.g. "Looks like I'm the Persecutor here, your sister is the Victim, and you're the Rescuer, huh?"

      The next step is (d) every family adult to take ongoing responsibility for keeping their true Self in charge of their other subselves, and help others do the same (i.e. progress on Lesson 1 together). Then (e) all family adults commit to learning how and when to use these basics and seven communication skills, starting with awareness.

      Again, notice that "money" is not the problem, though wounded, unaware people like the trio above might insist that it is. If they were aware of subselves and triangles, the adults would focus on admitting and dissolving their triangle, rather than escalating lose-lose arguments over the wife's spending habits and choices (a marital values conflict).

       For more perspective and options about avoiding, spotting, and dissolving toxic relationship triangles in any setting, including among your inner family of dynamic subselves, see this


Q7)  Is there a best way for adults to make significant family financial decisions?

      I vote "yes": all family adults should want to study and apply the Lessons in this free online self-improvement course, and model and teach them to their kids. Then with their true Selves in charge, work at win-win problem solving to master any surface disputes (Q1) about money (or anything else).


Q8)  Do typical divorcing families and stepfamilies have common "money problems" in addition to those in intact biofamilies (Q1)?

      Yes. Each such family can have a mix of complex extra issues like these:

  • negotiating divorce-related property and debt division and ownership, and alimony, if any; 

  • evolving pre-nuptial agreements between new partners if assets warrant this;

  • family adults agreeing on pre-re/marital and pre-re/divorce debt ownership and responsibility;

  • negotiating ongoing regular and special child-support obligations, allocation, and compliance, including resolving any legal battles over these;

  • negotiating child-related health and life insurance responsibilities and coverages;

  • agreeing on if and how much stepparents should contribute to...

    • household living expenses and family savings plans;

    • stepchild expenses, including clothing, food, activities, allowances, education, vacations, insurance, and gifts;

    • elder-care expenses;

    • legal bequests to stepkids, and...

    • paying down their partner's prior debts;

      More special "money problems"...

  • "fairness" issues (values and loyalty conflicts) among bio and step-relatives about financial and other gifts and support for kids and grandkids; and adults in typical divorcing families and stepfamilies must resolve disputes over...

  • what financial values to teach minor kids, who should teach them, and how; and...

  • choosing a competent financial advisor - i.e. one who understands the special complexities of divorcing families and stepfamilies in addition to financial wisdom.

      And an overarching special issue is...

  • how to resolve significant family financial disagreements effectively. This can be much more complex than in typical intact biofamilies because there are...

    • more wounded and unaware people who are affected,

    • more concurrent values and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles to sort out and resolve, and there is...

    • less informed, effective help available to resolve these (and other) stepfamily problems than for biofamily members.

      How well prepared do you think average divorcing-family and stepfamily adults are to plan for and co-manage their regular financial tasks (Q1) and a dynamic mix of these (and other) special tasks? Co-parents who invest significant time and energy in these Lessons early earn the best odds of succeeding at this challenge together over time. Their living and future kids depend on them to do so!


Q9)  Do divorcing-families and stepfamilies have additional primary problems (ref. Q2) that cause "money problems"? Yes, at least four:

  • Barriers - Many divorcing parents ("ex mates") and relatives deny, minimize, or ignore up to nine interactive barriers to cooperative childcare and effective family problem-solving:

psychological wounds


little forgiveness

major disrespect

little informed support

incomplete grief

ineffective communication

major distrust

unclear and disputed family roles (responsibilities)

Adults in typical intact biofamilies have fewer of these barriers, and they're usually simpler.

     And another primary problem is...

  • Ignorance - typical stepfamily adults don't know what they need to know  about stepfamily realities and hazards, so they often have unrealistic role and relationship expectations of each other. This usually results in a web of significant stressors which makes solving one problem at a time difficult; and...

  • Denials - many average stepfamily adults don't (want to) know they're a stepfamily (ignorance), or they deny their stepfamily identity and what it means. They can also deny that a stepchild's "other bioparent" and kin are full members of their multi-home stepfamily.

      These extra factors guarantee webs of stressful loyalty conflicts and triangles, which sometimes escalate into bitter legal battles over child-related issues including custody, visitations, financial support, and parenting agreements.

  • Biofamily mergers - typical stepfamilies develop over some years by merging up to 16 elements of three or more co-parents' biofamilies. This causes webs of concurrent values, loyalty, and membership conflicts and associated relationship triangles which typical adults and lay and professional supporters don't know how to avoid or resolve.

Bottom line - there can be up to nine simultaneous, interactive core problems promoting groups of significant surface "money problems" in typical divorcing families and stepfamilies. The best defense adults have against these core problems is to commit to helping each other progress at these Lessons starting in courtship.


Q10)  Is there a best way for stepfamily mates to manage their money?

      Yes. I believe the best strategy is one which consistently meets their respective (a) primary human needs and (b) key partnership and co-parental needs. Each mate will have a unique mix of needs which will vary over time. Can you name your sets of needs (discomforts) yet?

      Three money-management options that most stepfamily mates choose from are...

common ("ours") checking, savings, and investment accounts;

yours and mine accounts; or...

yours, mine, and ours.

    Each has pros and cons. Which option is best for you two will depend on many unique factors that are beyond summarizing here. You may experiment over time to see which option promotes the most personal, marital, and household harmony (satisfies everyone's needs) for you all.

          Whichever option fits you best, the real keys here are...

  • each of you being able to define clearly (a) what you need about managing your assets and debts, and (b) how you rank these needs;

  • being able to assert your needs effectively, and...

  • each of you feeling heard clearly by your partner, and...

  • being able to negotiate any differences effectively as mutually-respectful partners, vs. opponents.

      To do this, you'll probably each need to be able to answer questions 1-8 well enough. Take your time, and help each other learn and apply these ideas. Then teach your kids and other key people what you learn, including ex mates!


Q11)  Should stepparents and step-grandparents include stepkids and step-grandkids in their wills and estate plans?

      Including someone in a will or trust, and how much money or value you bequeath, publicly demonstrates how you rank that person with other beneficiaries. You can include stepkids and stepgrandkids in your will from a mix of duty (obligation) and guilt ("I should..."), and/or from genuine affection or love and concern for them.

      Whether to include stepkids, and how much to bequeath compared to biokids and biograndkids, will depend on your values, assets, debts, psychological bonds, and priorities. Focusing only on dollars and "fairness" risks causing major loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles ("hurt feelings") in relatives who feel discounted and excluded. The emotional impact of inclusion/exclusion decisions on your stepfamily relationships and nurturance level can't be measured in dollars.

      Because stepfamily systems are so psychologically, structurally, and dynamically complex, one way for mates to answer complex questions like bequests is to say "Where no clear resolution appears, put...

  • our integrities and wholistic healths first,

  • our stepfamily's marriages and/or long-term nurturance-level second, and...

  • everything else third."

Then explain and discuss this scheme honestly with all concerned. The long-term value of the scheme is that it helps to protect all family members from the great trauma and loss of potential psychological and legal (re)divorce.

      Adults who (a) reject your identity as a multi-home stepfamily, and/or (b) reject some children or adults as full stepfamily members are most apt to have major values and loyalty conflicts over who to include in estate plans, and to what extent. The risk of conflict is higher if the adults...

  • hold toxic attitudes and unrealistic stepfamily expectations (myths);

  • are psychologically wounded (ruled by false selves), and...

  • aren't fluent yet in the seven effective-communication skills.


Q13)  How can we pick an effective stepfamily financial advisor?

      Income, expenses, assets, debts, and financial security can be major sources of conflict in any family. This is specially true for average multi-home divorcing families and stepfamilies. If your adults decide to ask for expert advice on investments, wills, debt-restructuring and management, insurance, and tax obligations, use criteria like these to select the most effective advisors: the person should...

  • be licensed and experienced in the relevant area of financial expertise, and...

  • s/he should have significant experience in working with typical divorcing and remarried clients, and...

  • s/he should have a basic understanding of typical stepfamily stressors; and...

  • s/he should be proactive in alerting you co-parents to these stressors if you're not aware of them, and....

  • s/he should want to know your personal and marital or family priorities; and...

  • s/he should invite you to identify the best short and long-term financial decisions in case you mates re/divorce.

      At the least, a candidate advisor should be able to (a) answer most of these quiz questions accurately, and to (b) accurately describe...

_ the five common re/marital hazards,

_ what it means to be a stepfamily,

_ who belongs to a typical stepfamily,

_ how to handle typical conflicts over values and loyalties, and...

_ how to avoid and resolve divisive relationship triangles.

The best candidate will also have some knowledge of the legal rights of stepparents and stepkids in your state, and/or s/he should be able to refer you to a veteran family-law attorney who knows about these rights. For more perspective on choosing an effective family financial advisor, see this and this when you finish here.



Q14)  How can we resolve our major stepfamily arguments over financial "fairness"?

      Arguing over financial (or any) fairness in typical divorcing families and stepfamilies is usually a special kind of values and loyalty conflict. Such arguments often bloom when people unrealistically expect these families to behave like (ideal) intact biofamilies.

      Try defining "fairness" out loud now, as to a young child. Would you agree that whatever the surface issue ("My stepparent gives her son real expensive gifts, and gives me just cheap stuff."), fairness is usually about perceived personal respect and priority?

      An inescapable reality in typical stepfamilies is that despite vows not to play favorites, many bioparents instinctively care more for their own children and grandkids than for their stepchildren and step-grandkids. There are many exceptions. Another reality is that the bonds between pairs of stepfamily adults - including ex mates and their families - vary from dislike to "polite disinterest" to deep affection and respect to love.

      These realities suggest that most fairness disputes can be best handled by...

  • all people accepting their stepfamily identity and what it means;

  • adults check for unrealistic stepfamily expectations, and adjust as needed;

  • avoid lose-lose debates about what's "fair" and what isn't fair in local situations. Instead...

  • use awareness and dig-down skills to identify what the primary needs are that cause "fairness" conflicts (e.g. respect and inclusion);

  • use all seven communication skills as teammates to evolve effective strategies to spot and resolve values and loyalty conflicts and associated relationship triangles; and..

  • help each other avoid or reduce any unwarranted guilts about feeling or acting "unfair" in stepfamily (and other) situations.


Q15)  Are there any "money" books written for stepfamily adults? 

      The only one I know is Money Advice for Your Successful Remarriage - Handling Delicate Financial Issues With Love and Understanding; by Patricia Schiff Estes. Patricia is the remarried founding editor of Sylvia Porter's Personal Finance Magazine, and a former Board member of the (now disbanded) Step-family Association of America. There may be other books - search the Web.

      While expert at financial topics, I suspect Patricia is not fully informed on these Q&A topics - specially these five hazards. Her book is useful anyway. For perspective on choosing any materials about stepfamilies and remarriage, see this.


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