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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has a long history of arguing about money and can’t discuss it without interrupting each other, or if one partner is withdrawn and secretive about finances, these are red flags that the economy may not be the only issue.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.

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