Money, Romance and the Fundamental Attribution Error

(AKA An attempt at a non-clichéd Valentine’s post)

Heart money Question:  What percentage of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce?

Answer:  Over 50%

Question:  What percentage of those cite money issues as the primary reason for the split?

Answer:  Over 50%

It doesn’t take a statistician to hypothesize that money is the foremost source of relational dysfunction.  Or, maybe it’s the primary scapegoat or symptom.  That distinction is largely irrelevant because in either case, the common denominator is money.  And even though we’re dealing with the dollars and cents of money constantly, have you ever noticed that we don’t talk much about our philosophy surrounding money or our history with money or even our feelings about money?

Enter the sexy topic of “fundamental attribution error.”  Here’s a definition I found in Wikipedia:

In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error (also known as correspondence bias or attribution effect) describes the tendency to over-value dispositional or personality-based explanations for the observed behaviors of others while under-valuing situational explanations for those behaviors.

Clear as mud, eh?  Here’s the idea:  We have a tendency to presume that the bad things that happen to us are circumstantial—that we’re an innocent bystander subject to the undeserved malevolence of the universe —and that the bad things that happen to other people are due to a lack of responsibility on their part or even their character.  That’s why when you cut someone off driving, you were obviously in a hurry to do something very important (and late for no fault of your own) and when someone on the road cuts you off, they were obviously just an idiot trampling on your God-given traffic rights. (Sarcasm intended.)

Thankfully, fundamental attribution error never takes place in our marriages and relationships with boyfriends and girlfriends.  And never regarding the topic of money!  (Intense sarcasm intended.)  That’s why, at our very worst, we believe that our beloved is a spendthrift who obviously wasn’t properly reared to understand the value of money while we are disciplined, frugal and wise in the ways of fiscal matters.  Or, we believe that our soul mate is a miser whose parents were just plain cheap while we hold money loosely, recognizing its relative unimportance in the face of deepening relationships.  Right. 

Personal Money Story

So, in the spirit of Saint Hallmark—I mean, Valentine—I’m going to recommend an exercise that will teach you about… you… and then about your spouse.  It’s called the Personal Money Story.  You start by thinking of the earliest possible memory you have about money.  Maybe you received an allowance, a birthday gift of money or opened a bank account for the first time.  Then you rate that experience on a scale of up to 10 if it was a very positive experience all the way down to -10 if it was a bad one.  Then try to remember each of the experiences with money that left a meaningful impression and give them a score.  All of the memories are important—no matter if they were minor (having your bike stolen and not having the money to purchase another) or major (Job loss of a parent that forced you to move).

If you are able to plot each of those experiences on a graph, you’ll get a great visualization of your history with money (fear not, we’ve created a functioning spreadsheet and graph with instructions).  That’s important, because that history is likely the primary determinant of how you view and deal with money today.  You’ll probably learn something about yourself, but hearing and seeing the Personal Money Story of your loved one can be a life-changing experience.  He or she certainly has made good and bad decisions surrounding money, to varying degrees, but you’ll now likely also see how his or her past experiences shaped those decisions.  You’ll have the opportunity to reverse the negative effects of fundamental attribution error and properly weigh the circumstances that shaped your spouse or loved one.  This sharing can also lead to the vision casting question of, “OK, how do WE want to handle money—together?”

You can link directly to a functioning Personal Money Story spreadsheet and graph that will allow you to enter your money events and corresponding scores and watch the graph populate by clicking HERE.

Question: Is Valentine’s Day a romantic holiday that brings couples closer together OR a manipulative trap set up by the card, flower and jewelry industries?

Answer: It doesn’t matter.

In today’s hyper-technologically-connected-but-not-in-reality world, we couples need all the help we can get to generate purposeful, deliberate opportunities to grow our relationships.  In a virtual world of email, Facebook, TiVo and Twitter (all useful tools), it seems to be a growing challenge to engage in the antiquated art of conversation.   Throw children and their accompanying activities into the mix and it seems that 95% of the correspondence between man and wife is utilitarian in nature.  I won’t go so far as to suggest you and your loved one spend Valentine’s Day discussing fundamental attribution error or even swapping Personal Money Stories, but taking the bold step into this territory and really applying yourself intentionally to the process is guaranteed to have meaningful, positive results.