For the Love of Bartering

Romantic relationships often pit social norms against market norms. What happens when you and your partner clash over money management?

When it comes to money in relationships, there are societal norms at play. Think of them as rules of behavior that we are taught to observe in certain situations. We learn these rules and norms from our parents, from TV and movies and, at times, from our partners. And while some of these norms that are crystal clear, others are as clear as mud.

Economists say that we live in two worlds: the world of the market and the world of social interaction.

For me, balancing social and market norms is a dynamic that has cultural and historical roots. My father’s family is First Nations (Indigenous) from the Northwest Coast of Canada. Our ancestors hunted and traded for thousands of years, and in our communities there is still a culture of bartering and trading for goods and services. An artist might create a carving and trade it to another craftsperson for a piece of beadwork, and no money is exchanged.

To trade and exchange goods and services for something of value other than money is a way to build stronger bonds than just making a purchase with cash. It’s more personal. There’s a greater sense of reciprocity involved, a stronger sense of community that’s built with each trade.

These are the “rules of transaction” that I’ve learned from birth. But when the rules you’ve learned differ from those of your husband or wife, that can often cause friction in a relationship, and you may not even realize the root cause of that friction.

To pick an extreme example, in many communities, offering to pay your date for sex is the quickest path to not only remaining single but to becoming a social pariah. On the other hand, asking your partner to pay you for their half of the groceries or dinner is a more socially acceptable, yet still, an awkward conversation to navigate. Navigating financial awkwardness and understanding what really matters—and what doesn’t—is one of the hardest parts of any relationship.

Economists say that we live in two worlds: the world of the market and the world of social interaction. Put differently, there is the financial world, which can be abstract at times, and the world constructed from our relationships with family, friends, and lovers. And there are behavioral expectations in both these worlds.

Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely describes this dynamic in his book Predictably Irrational: “Social norms include friendly requests that people make of one another. [They] are wrapped up in our social nature and our need for community…Instant paybacks are not required,” while “the [world] governed by market norms, is very different…the exchanges are sharp-edged: wages, prices, rents, interest, and costs-and-benefits.” Conflict occurs when these two worlds meet. In Money Management International’s 2011 Survey on Love and Money, 63% of the unhappily married couples’ surveyed cited financial issues as the primary reason source of unhappiness.

Our relationships are governed by social norms for the most part. We seek to build an environment of support for one another, an environment of love and connection. We delight in doing things for those we love because we know that they would do the same. But a domestic partnership or marriage is also an economic structure, which means market norms come into play, and when the bills aren’t paid on time or when we disagree with over who should pick up the bill, how it should be split, or whether to spend money on a vacation, pay a credit card or save it, conflict often arises. Situations like these force us to juggle values like responsibility, fairness, dependency, and self-reliance with equally important values such as trust, respect, connection, reciprocity, and community.

And today—with the advent of everything from Venmo to online banking to robo advisors—it feels as if the market has permeated our lives. We get married later, we live together longer, often both partners work, and we’re bringing more financial baggage to our relationships. The rules of behavior with respect to money in our personal relationships are blurry.

Although bartering is still a valuable and intimate way of processing transactions, the world has largely adopted a sophisticated monetary system for a reason. It allows us to invest and grow wealth in important and diverse ways. But perhaps we’ve lost something along the way. Our aim at Jointly is to help people rediscover this sense of collaboration and reciprocity.