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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.

Sally Palaian, Ph.D., 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. Contact:; website:

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