How couples can talk about (gulp!) money

March 28, 2014, 1:00 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Politics, sex, health, religion, or money: Which of these would make you most likely to head for the loo (or at least top off your glass) if it came up at a dinner party?

According to a new study by the deVere Group, a financial advisory firm in the U.K. — money tops the list 60% of the time. Now, this study was international (the U.K., Hong Kong, United Arab Emirates, and South Africa in addition to the U.S.) and skewed to wealthy individuals (with more than $1.5 million to invest).  So, over the past few days, I did a little pure stateside research — asking readers to my free weekly newsletter to weigh in. Some of you who follow me @JeanChatzky or @FortuneMagazine on Twitter took my survey as well.

Turns out sex is the topic that makes our skin crawl most in a social setting. Money came in at No. 2. Health? We could talk about that all day (perhaps explaining why my stepfather calls the first 10 minutes of lunch with his ROMEOs — Retired Old Men Eating Out — the organ recital.)

The initial ranking aside, 60% of my respondents (most of whom were age 40 to 60 with investible assets in the low to mid six-figures) cop to avoiding conversations about money. (If you’d like to weigh in, you can do so here.) That’s not a problem when the talk actually is happening at a dinner party — but when you’re avoiding talking to your spouse or significant other, kids (adolescent or adult), and parents, it spells trouble.

Not talking means kicking the can down the road on positive topics (What do we want to be doing 10 years from now?) as well as negative ones. (How much credit card debt do you really have?) That’s why we end up with couples who can’t agree upon when, let alone where or how, they want to retire. It’s one reason marriages fall apart over finances. And it makes us more likely to raise kids who perpetuate the cycle.

“Unfortunately, the people who are closest to you are also the hardest to talk to,” says Rick Kahler, president of the Financial Therapy Association. So why does this happen? And how can we rewrite the script? Let’s take those one at a time.

Two emotions — shame and guilt — drive us away from conversations about our finances, Kahler says. “There’s shame that we aren’t making enough or aren’t worth enough,” he says, “and guilt if we perceive we are making or have too much.” Neither emotion is triggered by a particular number, interestingly, but by where we stand (or think we stand) based on the company we’re in.

According to my study, a third factor — privacy, i.e. it’s nobody’s business — also looms large in the equation. Financial psychologist Brad Klontz says his research confirms that those who have more money are both more secretive — and more anxious. “They’re more worried about the future and more worried that they might be taken advantage of,” he notes, both of which can lead to insulating themselves even more.

The only way to get beyond it is to just dive in, he says. Begin with your spouse or the person closest to you. “What you’re talking about is exposure, that’s what you do in psychotherapy when someone is very anxious about something. If you have belief that if you talk about money you’ll get divorced, or people will think you’re rude, the only way to get through anxiety is to practice doing it.” And don’t start with the numbers. Start with talking about your goals and your fears. What did your mother teach you about money? What did you learn from your dad? Notes Klontz: “It gives you a different experience than the typical drive-by fight about why you spent X.”

Finally, take solace in the fact that even pros have a tough time with these conversations. Kahler was once part of a group of eight financial planners that decided to have a conversation about how much they made the prior year and how much they were worth. “It took eight hours,” he says, noting that at the end seven of the eight realized — to their relief — they were very much in the same ballpark.

My husband and I actually schedule these conversations because I — not he — will otherwise avoid. One thing I can tell you: Once the conversations are over, there’s always a greater sense of security. And relief.

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