Financial therapy can be an investment in your relationship
Sometimes it’s a difference in values: One spouse wants to save for a rainy day, the other wants to live for today. For other couples, money can turn into a weapon, with her spending to get back at his transgressions, or him clutching the purse strings to maintain power.
Money is one of the biggest tension points of any marriage, with deeply rooted issues from childhood often shaping each perspective.
But it’s also a taboo subject — even more than sex — among many couples, psychologists say. And few of us have any education or training in talking about money.
“People have tremendous anxieties that block their ability to talk about money,” says psychologist Jeffrey Bernstein, author of Why Can’t You Read My Mind? among other books.
A few sessions of “financial therapy” with a supportive therapist can make a big difference, several psychologists and planners say. Couples can learn what’s underlying their own and their partner’s feelings about money, and begin to talk more openly and less emotionally about spending.
“Usually, people aren’t aware of where their money attitudes come from,” says Susan Heitler, a clinical psychologist. “A few sessions with a good therapist, actually can make a huge difference.”
Financial planning “should be a creative process that helps people understand who they are and how that understanding helps them and those they love,” says Erika Rasure, who has a Ph.D. in financial planning from Kansas State University, where the term “financial therapy” was coined.
“Financial therapy facilitates creation of a blueprint,” says Rasure, an assistant professor in financial services at Maryville University in St. Louis.
Although financial advisers usually encourage clients to save for the future, Rasure says it’s also important to prioritize joy and fun in a relationship. When couples come to her with different spending priorities, she encourages the savers and the spenders to help balance each other out.
“Being open to having these conversations is kind of a first step,” she say.
To resolve money conflicts, each partner must realize what is truly non-negotiable for the other, say David Penner, clinical director of the Seattle-based Gottman Institute, a couples research and clinical center. Maybe one spouse lost a parent in childhood and learned early that life could end at any time — so he or she is driven to live for the moment. Another might have grown up poor and doesn’t want their children to ever have to face the embarrassment that can come from poverty.
“If they are able to understand this about each other, it doesn’t solve the problem, but it enables them to move from this gridlock position to a dialogue position,” Penner says.
There is no doubt that money plays a role in the vast majority of relationships, says Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Three-quarters of couples say that financial stability was a “very important” or “somewhat important” factor in their decision to get married, according to a Pew Research Center survey.
No couple is perfectly aligned on money matters, Wilcox says. “Compromise and communication are key to handling that difference successfully.”
But data suggests that saving at least some money is helpful for a relationship, he says. Couples who save more tend to be happier, and newlyweds who take on more debt are more likely to become dissatisfied in their marriage over time, research has found.
Fighting about money in the first five years of marriage is a stronger predictor of divorce than fighting about topics such as sex, household chores or in-laws, according to research by Jeffrey Dew at Brigham Young University.
Couples fight less about money, Dew says, when they report equal levels of economic power in their relationship, as well as more mutual respect and commitment.
Other researchers have found that fights about money last longer, are more intense and less likely to be resolved than fights about other topics, he says. “Money seems to be a little qualitatively different than other topics people face,” Dew says.
Although people of all classes and income brackets fight about money, there’s no question that being financially strapped puts added stress on a marriage, he says.
Heitler, author of The Power of Two and Prescriptions Without Pills, says she sees clients nearly every day who are arguing about money. She is currently counseling one couple, she says, in which the husband wants to control their joint bank account, and demands that his wife come to him for all of her spending requests. The wife reacts to this with fury, yelling at him “You don’t respect me!”
Heitler says she is working with them to build a relationship based on equal power and cooperation, where they can calmly discuss the different ways they prefer to approach problems, rather than allowing their emotions to escalate.
Parenting, of course, can also highlight tensions over money. One parent — perhaps because of bad memories from childhood — wants to buy the child the latest of everything, while another wants to instill different values.
Parents can help their children avoid future relationship issues by teaching them now that it’s OK to talk about money, says Bernstein, a licensed psychologist based in Exton, Penn.
“We need to school our children on money,” he says, “so when they do get married they talk about it.”
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