Defining Your Relational Currency

by Debra L. Kaplan

Excerpt from “For Love and Money: Exploring Sexual & Financial Betrayal in Relationships

Money, it turned out, was exactly like sex: You thought of nothing else if you didn’t have it and thought of other things if you did.  ̶ James A. Baldwin

When two people come together under an emotional and erotic cosmic trance, the one conversation most likely not occurring is, “What do you value most about being in a relationship, and how do you express this to your partner?” Given that our brains are hijacked by the hormonal and chemical rush of lust and attraction, that makes sense. Those conversations hopefully occur, but later, beyond the early phase of lust and waning limerence, at the relational fork in the road. The true estimation and valuation of what is relationally important or desired is no longer cloaked in a chemical bath of erotic attraction. The rose colored glasses come off. Beyond the initial phase of lust and intrigue, each individual “shows up” and presents who they really are, day-in and day-out, in a relationship. At this point the essence of the relational currency begins to develop, setting the foundation for what becomes overtly known or unknown in the relationship.

Currency is a generally accepted form of economic or monetary exchange. Currency is also what each individual values and brings to a relationship. Relational currency speaks to what we value, what we bring in the way of relational strengths and the ways in which we communicate this to our loved one. Relational currency can be described as the acts or statements used to express love and affection in relationship. In the early phase of connection, when we are star-crossed lovers, we don’t engage in those proverbial life questions or at least are not likely to do so. Our outwardly focused and self-guided questions are more likely to surface under exasperation or relational disconnect. How is my partner showing up in the relationship? How does s/he express love and affection? How does my partner express love for me, and do our values match? Of less certainty is the inwardly focused proverbial quest: How am I showing up in relationship? How do I express love and affection? Do I express my love for him/her and do I value that which s/he values? In session with couples, I commonly hear the following:

– He may not be very handsome, but the truth is that I married him for his money and he married me for my looks.

– I’m not alone but I really feel that way. I used to see his dedication to his job as a strong suit. Now, I just see it as his first wife.

– If he would only tell me that he even cares about me or loves me I wouldn’t feel so alone. (And a very honest addition to that quote was…) But at least I get a rich life-style from it.

– Not only do I have to work during the day, but then I come home and take care of the kids. She always said she wanted to raise a family. That was supposed to be her job, mine was making the money.

– If only he would see me as attractive like he did when we first met, I wouldn’t feel so ugly.

– My wife stopped having sex years ago. So should I have stopped paying the bills?

– I earn the money and she spends it. It used to be different when we had kids at home but that’s no longer the case. I just wish she would go back to work so that I didn’t have to be the only one working.

In 2010, British sociologist and writer Dr. Catherine Hakim presented a theory on what she coined “Erotic capital.”

“Erotic capital combines beauty, sex appeal, liveliness, a talent for dressing well, charm and social skills, and sexual competence,” she explains.

“Rather than degrading those who employ it, erotic capital represents a powerful and potentially equalizing tool—one that we scorn only to our own detriment.” 1 In 2011, Hakim published her research on Erotic capital in, Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom.

While the bedroom is not always a far cry from the boardroom, the use of sex, sex appeal and beauty as currency in courtship and relationship has long been a part of mating and dating. Early evidence at least suggests that, in the realm of prostitution, it dates back to about 2400 B.C. However controversial or not Hakim’s perspective may be in identifying a fourth personal tool of influence, the fact remains that sex and money have always been overtly or covertly used as relational currency and are likely to continue ad infinitum.

“I make the money and you spend it.” Chuck was self-righteously angry and willing to express this to a sympathetic ear and audience—me! “I don’t remember vowing ‘til theft do us part!” Chuck continued, only now he was going for carotid blood. “I don’t remember that we actually decided this, did we, Katie? Or is this one of your unilateral marital decisions you made while I wasn’t looking?” “Sorry, you weren’t there, Chuck.” Katie threw up her sarcasm. “You must have been ‘burning the midnight oil’ with your escort, or was that on your escort— Chuck!?” Katie stopped there and we all sat in silence. I tried not to smile at Katie’s dark humor, which she wielded when she was particularly hurt. Given that Katie asked for a crisis session and they were here to discuss this newest and previously undisclosed infidelity, I was a tad surprised that they veered off on this tangent. And yet, I wasn’t surprised at all. Chuck and Katie married 14 years ago in better times. The economy hadn’t yet eroded their life savings, their house had not come under the threat of foreclosure, and Chuck’s smoldering predilection for escorts and inter-office affairs hadn’t yet surfaced.

As is common for many in relationships, one of the partners comes to therapy in hopes of resolving an issue that has become problematic—perhaps even hopeless. Therapists’ offices often become de facto safe zones for what I call the Relational Rummage Sale. Once “safely” inside the therapy room, a partner or spouse drags out their personal stuff that’s been stored for years in their emotional attics. Out comes the debris, oftentimes long-standing reminiscences, fetid secrets, dashed hopes, and disappointments that were, in their day, prized treasures and celebratory relational jewels. For Chuck and Katie, this couldn’t have been truer. Katie had called and scheduled the appointment under the auspices of “dealing with the newest of Chuck’s sexual betrayals,” so when the opportunity presented for them to mudsling and expose unsung grievances it was game on. If it’s difficult to wade through the rocky terrain of known infidelity, betrayal, or relational isolation, it’s even more difficult to bring up issues after they have sat festering for years; that is, until the sign for the rummage sale goes up in the neighborhood!

Minutes had passed since Chuck and Katie sat quiet avoiding each other. Katie glanced anxiously at me waiting for permission or at least a sign or message that would communicate to her, “Go-ahead, you have my permission.” My lack of involvement was intentional. I was curious as to where this session was really heading. All of a sudden, Katie sprang to life and fired back, “What do you mean ‘til theft do us part? If you mean I spend the money—that’s my job, isn’t it? I’m the one home with the kids; I get them set for school and take care of the doctors’visits, clothes, you know EVERYTHING—everything is also what I gave up in order to stay home and raise the kids, which is why we’re here because I’m tired of doing everything! I buy the food, keep the house, manage everything, and you go to work and apparently screw around, then come home and sit as if you’ve fulfilled all your daily requirements!”

Katie turned toward me to report that Chuck doesn’t know half of what goes on at home, as if Chuck himself were not inches from her and within earshot. At this point I interjected. “I’m confused. I thought we’re here today because of Chuck’s infidelity. Is that the case?”

According to a national telephone survey conducted in early 2012 by Harris Interactive for the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), financial matters are the most common cause of discord among American couples. Twenty-seven percent of those married or living with a partner acknowledged that disagreements over money are most likely to prompt a spat—an average of three arguments per month. Financial matters topped the list, ahead of arguments about children, chores, work, or friends. “Much of the relationship conflict can be traced to a failure to communicate about finances,” according to the survey. “More than half of adults, 55 percent, who are married or living with a partner said they do not set aside time on a regular basis to talk about financial issues.”2 This study may have clarified what couples argue about but does not speak to an elemental problem in the relationship, which is how they relate.

“Each person brings a different perspective based on their past experiences,” said Jordan Amin, chair of the National CPA Financial Literacy Commission. “It’s critical for couples to communicate openly and regularly about financial matters in order to establish a common language around money and move toward shared goals.”

According to the AICPA study, arguments about household chores came second, followed closely by the ever-present issue of sex in the relationship.3 A more recent online survey of 1,010 married adults age 25 and over with household incomes above $50,000 showed how couples manage their finances once they’ve tied the knot. The survey results showed that 70 percent of couples argue about money more than household chores, togetherness, sex, snoring, and what’s for dinner. Ask most people you know, and invariably money becomes the divining rod for conflict in relationships because of the unresolved or undisclosed emotions surrounding this sensitive topic. These studies may clarify what couples argue about but says nothing about the way in which couples wield currency or avoid speaking to its presence and power in relationship.

If financial matters are the primary source of discord among couples, then relational currency is the primary avenue by which to explore how couples relate.

Couples arrive at a relational medium of exchange, whether they know it or not. Values are, after all, platforms for discussion and checklist items for finding and selecting an appropriate partner. That all individuals have values is of no dispute. What each person or coupleship values is germane and can become the tail wagging the relational dog if not discussed or negotiated in earnest. Discovering what each individual or potential partner values—really values, and is ultimately seeking in marriage or relationship, and then negotiating for this, is paramount to relational success or failure. I have often shared with clients that in relationship there is the information we need to know and have yet to ask for/about, and the information we already know/have, yet choose to ignore. The means of discovering what the other’s currency or relational nuances are (or aren’t) can become overlooked or lost in the limerence of early sexual and emotional discovery.

A couple’s relational currency speaks to what each values, yet unspoken arrangements drive the relating. The matter at hand for many couples or marriages is the undisclosed and unexplored nature of these issues that covertly or overtly drive the relational process. Individuals join together and/or marry for mutual love, emotional or financial security, convenience, legal status, or loneliness. All of the above reasons and intentions can also be driven by undisclosed and/or unacknowledged overt or covert motivational dynamics regarding various factors: sexual surplus or entrée, lust, emotional longing, emotional restitution, financial exclusivity, social status and rank, sexual identity and or guise, and perceived manipulation and control.

Since an individual’s relational currency is comprised of past childhood experiences and patterns of behavior, it is as important to know what an individual values as it is important to know how willing or capable one is to communicate this in the relationship.

Chuck and Katie may have been sparring about sexual infidelity or, as it may have been the case, money, but their process was exposing their underlying needs and perceived relational currency. Twenty years earlier when Chuck and Katie were dating, Chuck was quick to point out what he so adored about Katie: her quick wit, ability to hold her own in negotiations with her male business colleagues, and her needless/wantless stance. It was only years later that Chuck insinuated in session that he enjoyed Katie’s youth—she was 10 years his junior. Reading between the lines of currency, his underlying approach seemed to be ‘I’ll provide the salary if you keep providing the looks.’ Back in those days, Katie was enamored with Chuck’s lithe social ease and ability to make conversation in any business or social realm, a skill that Katie and her family valued, which also extended social standing. Chuck’s established financial success was appealing. In later years, Katie seemed unaware that Chuck’s success in business helped make him so attractive to her. It seemed that their mutual attributes or currency became deficits and aspects of mutual disdain. If they were to find their way back to their early relational roots, both individuals would have to work at being honest with themselves, honest with the other, and share equally in the marital heavy lifting of therapy. Regardless of the internal work to be done, external distractions and addictions would have to be extinguished in order to restore some balance between the two.


1 Erotic Capital: Catherine Hakim, Basic Books, 2011) Chapter 1
2 Harris Interactive conducted the telephone survey on behalf of the American Institute of CPAs within the United States between March 8 and March 11, reaching a nationally representative sample of 1,005 adults aged 18 and older by landline and mobile phone. For full results and methodology contact Jonathan B. Cox at 919-402-4499 or
3 In a 2012 study conducted by Harris Interactive, 38 percent of men and women polled stated that money was the number-one cause of marital strife. According to the same study arguments about household chores came second followed closely by the ever present issue of sex in the relationship.


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