MONEY MAY TALK—BUT couples have a harder time, often struggling to agree on financial matters.
I’ve been a clinical psychologist for almost 50 years. I’ve counseled many couples who are mired in financial conflict and seen the quality of their relationship corroded by their squabbles.
How can we avoid such damage and start to reverse it? Let me tell you about two couples. These couples are hypothetical—remember, there’s this thing called patient confidentiality. But trust me, the dynamics I describe are real. Indeed, what you read below are composites based on couples I’ve helped.
The Panicked Biker. Peter and Nancy came to counseling to resolve their recurrent bickering over money. They were in their early 70s and had been married for 47 years.
During our initial sessions, Peter recounted his childhood jealousy of schoolmates who lived in exclusive neighborhoods. He remembered resolving to become “no less a man than them.” On top of that, Peter’s life had been fractured at age 16 when his parents divorced and his mother died two years later.
For two teenage years, he assumed responsibility for getting his younger sister and himself ready for school and for preparing their meals. They lived a spartan existence, often eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner. Peter spoke of feeling “terrified and humiliated” most of the time.
For six years, he saved much of his wages from a job at a bicycle shop in New Haven, Connecticut. While working there, he saw an opportunity to open a store devoted exclusively to mountain biking. Over the next decade, he expanded to 17 stores in seven East Coast cities.
Peter more than realized his ambition to become a material success. He built a 9,000-square-foot house in the Hamptons and drove a BMW Series 7 sedan. His business became a fount of financial well-being, security and self-esteem for close to 50 years. But faced with the prospect of retirement, Peter admitted “feeling panic-stricken,” experiencing a mental rush of catastrophic scenarios that’s common among anxious people.
What about Nancy? She was also no slouch. She served as the retail chain’s head of human resources, with responsibility for more than 100 employees. Victimized by her father’s domestic violence, Nancy thrived on Peter’s reliability and effectiveness. She felt safe with him and didn’t want to rock their good life.
But over the years, Peter’s inflexibility became suffocating. Nancy’s wish to broaden their social life and travel abroad was held hostage by her husband’s insecurity and stubbornness. She was privy to their financial statements and knew that they could retire any time they chose. She also knew Peter’s jitteriness about retirement was exaggerated by memories of his teenage hell.
Peter’s unwillingness to commit to retirement was a match to Nancy’s resentment. With no warning or fanfare, she announced she would retire in two years and asked Peter to agree to scale back his involvement with the business on the same timetable. The ensuing standoff precipitated their decision to seek counseling.
Childhood trauma imprints on all of us—and it’s never fully erased. Peter needed to develop self-awareness to distinguish between his lack of control and helplessness as a teenager and his current wealth and enduring marriage. In addition to gaining insight, he benefited from talking through his distortions and from using other cognitive techniques to reduce anxiety.
For retirement to be appealing, it had to offer some of the structure and meaning Peter derived from his business. His immersion in work left little time for hobbies. During counseling, he committed to extending his passion for exercise to backpacking and to joining a bicycle tour group. A spiritual person, Peter also vowed to attend a class on Eastern religion and to learn to live more in the here and now. He said he would try yoga if Nancy accompanied him.
Nancy was trapped by the power dynamic in which so many women find themselves. Peter was head of household, started the business and doled out the cash. Although she would be called upon to reassure Peter during the retail chain’s winter lull, it was not Nancy’s role to be his caretaker or therapist. She needed to prevent his fears from engulfing their marriage. We role-played ways she could gently draw the line and encourage Peter to take responsibility for his anxiety.
Insisting Peter retire in two years was a good start. Peter said he could be on board if he could taper off work gradually to where he might “go in” on a weekly basis. He also saw the wisdom of Nancy having a separate bank account with sufficient funds to pay for their travel. Peter and Nancy were optimistic when counseling ended after 12 sessions. They were hopeful about the chance to enjoy a more balanced and richer retirement.
The Lawyer’s Dilemma. Jenny and Dylan, our next hypothetical couple, met when they were both age 27 and in law school. She adored his spontaneity, good cheer and uncommon goodness. Her parents were conservative and strict, and Dylan had the pedigree and charm to win them over. She looked forward to a life more open to viewpoints and experiences formerly shielded from her.
The other side of Dylan’s boyishness, however, was an irresponsibility and immaturity. The youngest of three brothers, he learned he could wrest attention from them by playing and joking. Jenny was working 60-hour weeks at a large corporation, while also managing the household. She was fast becoming intolerant of Dylan’s antics, no longer finding his playing and joking at all charming.
Her aloofness led Dylan to acts of desperation. He began to drink with the boys after work, charged recklessly on their credit cards and gambled away money set aside for retirement. When Jenny discovered all this, she was furious. She lost interest in sex and retreated into resentment. Violating the mores of her family, she exchanged romantic texts with an attentive colleague. Even though she was the one flirting with a colleague, Jenny felt betrayed by Dylan’s financial recklessness and sought therapy.
Jenny had essentially three options. She could stay the course, supplemented by an emotional affair or perhaps one that went even further. She could develop close relationships with women friends to provide some of the richness and depth she experienced with her text mate. Or she could get a divorce and lose the support of her judgmental parents. As her therapist, it wasn’t my role to preach or advise, but only to present the most compelling solutions.
A fourth solution would have been for Dylan to also seek counseling. The lesson of his behavior was clear: The strategies used to receive love as a child are often obsolete and counterproductive in adulthood. Treatment could help him develop more appropriate ways to gain affection and support. We must all learn to shed the game plans of our youth if, as adults, we’re to fulfill the promise of an intimate relationship.
Steve Abramowitz is a psychologist in Sacramento, California. Earlier in his career, Steve was a university professor, including serving as research director for the psychiatry department at the University of California, Davis. He also ran his own investment advisory firm. Steve’s previous articles were The Humble Landlord and Calling for Yield.