Finding alignment on money matters should be a top priority in any serious relationship, but just thinking about it often leads to stress and anxiety. In fact, money is one of the biggest sources of conflicts for couples .
The advice we're given repeatedly is to break the silence, but it's not always that simple. These conversations rarely end in harmony and can even lead to divorce.
The problem, as many relationship experts have also found, is that most couples approach the conversation with the intention of trying to prove why the other person is wrong.
Let's look at the bigger picture
A conflict about money isn't all that different from any other conflict (i.e., religious differences or opposite parenting values) you might have with your partner. It's emotional. It's having your moral values questioned by someone you love. It's the elephant in the room. It's the bickering force that pushes you to confront your deepest fears.
After 23 years of counseling more than 1,000 couples, I've found that the secret to a successful relationship is knowing how to manage conflicts constructively. To do so, couples must learn how their partners' childhood experiences with money influence their financial beliefs and priorities.
Mastering this skill isn't as easy as it sounds. It will take a significant amount of effort — mentally and emotionally — from both sides. Here are the key steps to help guide you:
1. Learn the stories behind your partner's financial beliefs
Our financial beliefs and values are developed very early on in our lives. We carry those beliefs with us through adulthood — and it can be difficult to change them. The key is to talk openly about those stories and how they influence our beliefs today.
A married couple that I work with (we'll call them Barbara and John) have very distinct beliefs about money. John, who grew up in an affluent household, tends to splurge on expensive gifts for his wife and doesn't believe in prioritizing things like retirement or buying a home. "My parents never talked to me — or each other — about money," he tells Barbara. "And whenever someone in our family got upset, he'd buy them gifts."
Barbara is a saver. "Money was tight in my family, and my parents always fought about it," she says. "One of their biggest regrets was not saving enough for early retirement. Witnessing their financial troubles, I vowed to work hard and save money so I'd never have to experience what they went through."
Stories like John and Barbara's make up our financial belief systems — and they're hard to escape. Even statements like "you must save 15% of your gross income for a secure retirement!" from a financial expert can become part of our belief systems.
But when you make an effort to understand the stories behind your partner's financial beliefs, things will start to make more sense, your judgments will start to fade and you'll find it much easier to be compassionate and see things from their point of view.
2. Let go of your 'clinginess'
The problem, however, isn't how your childhood stories shape your financial values — it's how much you cling to them. Your "clinginess level" determines how much conflict you'll have in your relationships. And if you and your partner both refuse to be flexible about your beliefs, it's a no-win situation.
But shifting your belief systems should be a lot easier once you've learned the stories behind your partner's financial priorities. The next step is to focus on finding common ground. Knowing what financial priorities you share will give the comfort and encouragement to make things work.
3. Work as a team to compromise
Once you've identified the things you agree on, start talking about the differences that are hurting your relationship.
As you're having this discussion, don't try to impose your beliefs on each other. In order to compromise, you must be willing to stretch yourself with new challenges.
Think about how you can take two different financial beliefs and turn them into one strong financial belief. It won't always work out, and that's okay. The most important thing is to keep an open mind and be honest. The objective is to build a shared foundation of financial beliefs.
Figure out how to align on your values and goals: Do you want to buy a home? Do you see children in your future? Do you want to retire early? These are all important matters to discuss.
4. Be vulnerable
Make no mistake: Things will get heated. Leave your ego at the door and remember that you're a team. Let go of your need to be right and really listen to your what your partner is saying, even if what they're saying means you might be wrong.
If you sense that you're starting to get angry, tell yourself: Maybe I'm missing or not understanding something. Maybe there's another way of handling this issue that I haven't thought of. (It also helps to balance the serious tone with some humor).
And remember, your financial journey together doesn't end after one conversation. Keep experimenting with different methods until you find a solution that works. Your situation as a couple may change, so keep scheduling time to follow up and discuss how things are going.
Marla Mattenson is a relationship and intimacy expert, specializing in coaching entrepreneurial couples. She teaches couples how to uncover the hidden patterns in their relationships and work using a non-traditional approach from her background in neuroscience and mathematics. In her 23 years of work, Marla has worked with more than 1,000 couples.
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