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.

Money Conflicts within the Relationship

If a couple has a long history of arguing about money and can’t discuss it without interrupting each other, or if one partner is withdrawn and secretive about finances, these are red flags that the economy may not be the only issue. Once you’ve ascertained that the couple’s money problems don’t stem from outside circumstances, you need to ask questions aimed at getting at the relational roots of their conflicts.

Since money is a primary arena for power struggles, such couples may have had financial disagreements since early in their courtship. Ask them how long they’ve been fighting about money, what their financial relationship was like before they were married, and what starts the fights. Who pays the bills? Who controls the purse strings? How do money issues affect the way they feel about each other?

If the couple has been fighting about financial topics throughout their marriage, ask about the family history of money. Many couples argue about money because each partner has different beliefs about it and its meanings that reflect financial problems or attitudes about money in their families of origin. Some arguments arise because each person has a different financial “style”—different materialistic needs, ways of recordkeeping, ideas about spending and saving, expectations about lifestyle.

Financial disputes can be highly emotional because money brings up childhood feelings centered on dependency, security, trust, generosity/withholding, and self-esteem. Abraham Maslow, the founder of humanistic psychology, put material security—providing basic survival—at the top of his hierarchy of needs. If there are deeply rooted childhood traumas, the therapy will need to focus on how those early events are being played out in the relationship. Both partners will need to explore money issues in their families—specific financial circumstances, how money was handled and by whom, the money beliefs of each parent, as well as the parents’ financial relationship. The therapist also needs to ask whether the family lineage has financial losses, unfulfilled dreams, or unspoken expectations.

When Joe and Constance appeared in my office, Joe took the lead and presented a financially dismal picture. He was visibly angry whenever Constance attempted to speak. He’d been raised by a single mother who struggled to support her two young children. While they never went without food or shelter, he had to pay his own way through college. It took him seven years, but he completed his college education, having pieced together scholarship money, loans, and part-time jobs the entire time. He was proud of this accomplishment, and his next goal in life was saving money. Constance, by contrast, was sexually abused by her father, who bought her “special” things that made her feel “loved” and “pretty.” Financial security wasn’t her issue; having nice things for herself and her children was what made her feel loved.

Money and spending was always at the center of this couple’s arguments. Joe felt pressure about maintaining the house and saving for the children’s college and for retirement. It was difficult for him to spend money on therapy, but he felt that a therapist might get through to Constance about her excessive spending. When I looked at the financial records, I saw that she focused on providing the extras for the family—a nicely decorated home, children’s social events, her own clothing. Because she’d been raised in a family with secrets and she knew Joe had difficulty with expenditures, she often lied about her spending. While her spending hadn’t put them in debt, she didn’t understand the family’s total financial situation, and avoided thinking about the long-term financial goals that worried Joe so much. In therapy, we explored each individual’s childhood history with money and security. As Joe articulated his childhood fears, he was able to work more in partnership with Constance about money, while learning to expose his vulnerabilities and fears about the future. She took a look at her own past and examined how her sexual abuse had predisposed her to confuse love and money. Joe and Constance increased their understanding of each other and grew to respect their differences.

With couples who have relational issues around money, the job of the therapist is to teach the couple to communicate about money without reactivity, so they can begin to understand the roots of their own and their spouse’s behavior, and learn to cope with each other’s differences. Even though Joe and Constance presented as if financial problems were the primary treatment focus, their actual finances were just fine.

True Financial Dysfunction

The third type of couple who seeks help for financial problems is that in which one partner has seriously dysfunctional money behaviors, often kept secret. In fact, secrecy about financial behaviors is the telltale sign of true financial dysfunction, and usually results in serious fighting in a marriage. The secrets aren’t exposed initially, so treatment begins by gathering basic details about the couple’s financial circumstances. Are they behind on paying bills? Is it difficult to pay for housing, food, or transportation? Are they in debt? How much? How has it accrued? What efforts have they already made to solve the problem? Once these details are clarified, the focus of treatment turns to specific financial behaviors: is one person constantly purchasing new clothing or the latest electronic equipment, refusing to get a job and contribute to the household, losing money to substance abuse or gambling? How does the other partner feel about these behaviors? Has he or she tried to control the partner by taking over the finances or scrutinizing purchases and other financial behaviors?

If these sorts of problems surface in the interview, the therapist needs to uncover the exact behaviors and conduct individual sessions with each partner to get a thorough history. What are the financially damaging behaviors, what’s their history, and have they grown worse over time? If the situation is becoming progressively worse, the partners need to be treated as an addicted couple—one needs to come out of denial, the other needs to stop enabling the problem. One or both may need long-term treatment or 12-step resources. The efforts and patterns of concealment also need to be explored.

For example, Ellen was a typical compulsive shopper; she hid her purchases, amassed large quantities of collector items, believed the salespeople at her favorite stores were her friends, and even overspent on groceries. Jim was fed up with her behavior and quite desperate for help when they came in. Recently, Ellen had lied again—he’d discovered the latest debt ($40,000 on two new credit cards) when they’d applied for a student loan for their son’s education.

Their money fights were vicious. Jim attempted to control Ellen through verbal abuse. After each fight, she left the house and went shopping to calm herself. He yelled, and she yelled back, accusing him of not loving her. Jim continued to allow her to be the money manager in the family and control the checkbook, even though he knew she was deceptive. He vacillated between anger and denial about the extent of the problem. Because Jim was deeply religious, he didn’t believe in divorce. Their accountant finally referred them for treatment.

Surprisingly, in therapy, Ellen seemed ready to face her dysfunctional and impulsive spending. She’d become increasingly uncomfortable with the amount of her own accumulation and truly didn’t know how to stop. As long as Jim stayed angry, she could blame him. With my support, she agreed to incremental changes in her shopping patterns—staying away from problem stores, beginning to give away some of her excess, and sticking to a predetermined weekly grocery allocation.

In therapy, Jim learned about enabling. He realized that taking on more overtime at work to pay the bills wasn’t going to help her stop spending—instead, it was undermining his own health. He learned to be more compassionate toward her while he set appropriate boundaries about the family resources. Ellen began to take responsibility and recognize that by depleting the family resources, she was jeopardizing her son’s future. We set up structured times for the couple to discuss the finances. In these discussions, they followed a specific agenda: they began with a prayer, Ellen showed Jim the upcoming bills, and then they discussed upcoming purchases of over $50. She sought help in a support group at her church for people who struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorders; he began to read about codependency.

While this couple has many years of dysfunctional habits behind them, they’re learning about compulsive and addictive behaviors, and are communicating more effectively with each other. They’re also getting their finances under control.

Because psychotherapists have a deep understanding of marital dynamics and problems, they have many opportunities to help troubled couples before their financial problems take them to the point of no return. If a therapist is uncomfortable working with finances, he or she can team up with a financial professional, each working in their area of expertise. In these times, therapists are likely to have their own financial issues triggered by their client’s financial situation, so it’s important to explore countertransference. But, notwithstanding our own money anxieties and even without financial training, psychotherapists can play a major role in helping couples become true partners, rather than adversaries, in managing their financial resources.

Photo by Shvets Production

Sally Palaian

Sally Palaian, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and Imago Relationship Therapist in private practice and the author of Spent: Break the Buying Obsession and Discover Your True Worth.