By Mimi Kraus, LCSW-C
As a therapist, I have witnessed many times how stress around financial issues often drives individuals and couples to a therapist’s office seeking help. Money is an emotionally charged topic, and couples often do not communicate effectively due to feelings of shame, guilt, need to control, lack of trust, and lack of confidence. People who grew up without good role models for discussing household finances often lack the skills to talk about this highly sensitive issue.
But the consequences of avoiding communication around money can be disastrous.
Bob and Susan have been married for 20 years. Bob is the major breadwinner who owns his own business and has made most of the financial decisions. Susan has been willing to leave family finances to Bob. Bob has always been a people-pleaser and believed it was his role to be the provider for the family. Bob’s business has not been doing well, and Bob has “protected” Susan from the details of his losses. Now, the oldest child is ready to go off to college, and the family has contracted for some major home renovations, including a new kitchen. Too ashamed to let Susan know of his mounting debts, Bob turned to ever riskier speculative investments, and ended up racking up debt in the mid six figures. Feeling alone, ashamed, and hopeless, Bob made an attempt on his life.
Phil and Anne had been married for 40 years, when Phil suddenly died from a heart attack. Phil had handled the finances and investments and had been meaning “to show Anne everything” one of these days. Anne, who felt insecure about understanding investments, had not been pushing Phil about doing this. Following Phil’s death, Anne realized that she did not know where the investment and savings accounts were, and did not even know what bills were regularly paid. Grieving her husband was now compounded by feeling like she needed to learn “a brand new language.”
Alan and Louise had been married for ten years. Louise was a planner and organizer, while Alan, with his ADHD, found even keeping a checkbook challenging. It was natural for Louise to assume the role as household money manager. Alan would turn over his paycheck to Louise regularly and was happy not to be bothered with the tedious details of the family budget. After all, Louise found it easier to take care of managing the finances and she was “so much better at it.” She decided it was even simpler to put all new accounts in her name and, to be honest, enjoyed the feelings of power and control that wielding the purse strings gave her. The marriage had many issues and eventually Louise filed for divorce. Because she had been given full financial control during their relationship, Louise maintained her upper hand, leaving Alan not only bereft of his wife, but also bereft of his money!
In a marriage, all money earned by either spouse is marital property and, by law, belongs equally to both parties. It is unfair for one party to withhold information about marital assets from the other, and it is not responsible to bury one’s head in the sand when it comes to to knowledge about household finances. While it is fine for one partner to be the ledger-keeper and bill-payer, it is important that both people know what funds are coming in and going out. I also recommend that both share in the financial decision making for major purchases.
This is an area where it pays to invest in developing good habits of communication early on, as lack of communication in this arena can lead to disaster. Transparency with respect to finances will save a lot of heartache down the road. Skills in communication, collaboration, and negotiation can be practiced and learned. Feelings about money and the many meanings attached to it should be shared early, before issues develop, so each person can better understand where the other is coming from. Money can be thought of as frozen energy- when “thawed”, that energy can take many forms. For example, money might mean control to one person and love to another. For one person, money saved may mean a secure future, while to the other, money spent may mean a life well-lived. For money issues that may seem intractable, counseling can help set a better course.
Though money may not be an easy or comfortable subject for couples to discuss, in the long run it is an investment in your relationship that will pay off in big returns.
By Mimi Kraus, LCSW-C, JCS Therapy Services
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