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In Consultation

Love and Money: Couple finances in a time of economic downturn

By Sally Palaian

Q: These days, couples often come into therapy with problems related to their finances. How do I distinguish between money difficulties caused by the economic downturn and those that are more psychological in nature?

A: Some financial problems we now see are clearly beyond the control of the people involved, stemming from the real estate bubble, outsourcing of jobs and layoffs, increased medical expenses, and failing banks. These financial losses are real, and they’ve undermined lifetime financial plans. There’s tremendous grief when facing this type of loss. However, financial losses become even more complex when they derive from, or are compounded by, one or both partners’ psychological issues about money.

It’s important for therapists to recognize when the financial problems couples bring to therapy are chronic and, therefore, more psychological in nature. Therapists aren’t trained in financial issues and often are uncomfortable talking about money, but their willingness to discuss it with clients is crucial for uncovering chronic pathology, which may unfold later in the treatment process. There are simple questions to help therapists recognize three different types of financial problems couples often bring to therapy: those directly related to the external facts of the economy, those deriving from money conflicts within the relationship, and those reflecting the chronic addictive financial behaviors of one or both partners.

Problems Related to the Economy

When any couple complains about money issues, the therapist should first gather basic information about their financial circumstances: Has someone lost a job or had a pay cut? Have they had unexpected medical expenses? Have they lost significant investment or retirement funds? If the answer is yes, their difficulties, wrenching as they may be, most likely aren’t due to chronic personal issues around handling money.

Recently, a couple with money problems came to see me. When I asked them to describe the history of the problem, they told me that the husband’s business had been hard-hit by road construction in front of the premises, an ineffective new manager, and slower business because of the economy. As he told the story, it became apparent that he hadn’t previously told his wife just how bad the financial situation was—the business was quickly going down the tubes. Yet, rather than expressing shock, outrage, or a sense of betrayal because her husband had withheld information, after her initial dismay, she voiced compassion for his situation and said she now better understood how important her own paycheck was.

Their problem seemed to be brought on by external forces, rather than psychological issues. Just to be sure, however, I asked whether they’d had money problems 10 years ago, and they said they’d always managed their finances without real difficulty. Because the wife wasn’t reactive to the disclosure of bad news, and because the couple had a positive history with money, I felt assured that their financial difficulties weren’t psychological in origin.

After making sure they had good coping skills for the stress and were communicating openly, I referred them to debt-repayment counseling. Therapists aren’t trained to help people with financial decisions and plans, but they can provide emotional support to help with the stress and grief, as well as guidance to communicate well during the crisis. They can also refer people to financial advisors, nonprofit debt counselors, or other professional financial resources.

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