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Money in the Middle

Steve Abramowitz

OUR COURTSHIP WAS both ripe with joy and fraught with tumult. One scene is emblazoned in my memory. Alberta and I had just finished lunch on the grass in front of the campus cafeteria. I was slumped over, exhausted by the frantic academic scramble to get published and disillusioned by the political intrigues.

Alberta read my mood and rested my head in her lap, as she ran her hand softly through my hair. Schooled by my parents to keep an eye out for retirement and advancing age, I thought to myself, “This woman is strong yet gentle. She would be able to take care of me if need be.”

The moment was prescient. I was soon blindsided by a devastating midlife depression that cost me a tenured and financially rewarding faculty position, and played havoc with my self-esteem. Alberta hung in there through 15 years that was characterized more by doctors’ appointments than fine cuisine and good theater.

I’d been raised in a family where money matters were ceded to men. Although I knew Alberta’s own family was not wealthy, she was susceptible to the life of plenty promised by nearby Hollywood and had an uncle who for a time owned the Indiana Pacers basketball team. She was no stranger to money largesse and had many of the makings of my feared antagonist, the formidable princess.

Alberta hadn’t done anything to cause me to doubt her responsibility with money, and yet I was terrified by the nightmare of ballooning credit card balances and gaudy jewelry. Fearing catastrophe to my supposed birthright as a man in financial control, I incredibly and insensitively presented Alberta with a homemade premarital contract. Alberta would agree to work at least half-time to “qualify” for sharing in our joint income. I proposed this outlandish arrangement even though she was already working full-time as a research associate at the university and was developing a private practice on the side.

Hurt and feeling betrayed, she refused to sign. Although Alberta has demonstrated her devotion to me many times over, she has never fully forgiven my breach of trust. I don’t blame her.

Fast forward two years into our marriage, when I tossed in another grenade, this time not of my own making. I suffered a full-blown anxiety attack while lecturing psychiatry residents on theories of psychotherapy. Drenched in sweat and heart pounding, I needed to be escorted back to my office. Thus began my deep anxiety-driven depression.

Throughout the ordeal, I somehow managed to sustain our stock fund and real estate investments, but barely. Just what was my erstwhile princess up to during my extended inability to perform many of the defined roles of husband and father? Did she find solace in an emotional affair? Maybe a caregiver to free up time for a shopping rampage or two? How about a European voyage with a likewise neglected friend to pump up those credit card balances? No such escapades materialized.

Frankly, what I remember most about our credit card bills are the charges and co-pays for my own treatments that led me down the rabbit hole of purported psychiatric remedies. There were more than 25 anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drug trials, topped off with a suicide attempt induced by an experimental medication. Alberta arranged numerous out-of-town consultations with renowned experts in depressive disorders and accompanied me to all of them. Each raised hope and ended with disappointment. With my hearing now significantly impaired, she acts as an interpreter at my annual physical and my visits to the cardiologist.

Alberta has her Social Security benefits deposited directly into our joint checking account, no questions asked, no grand spending schemes. She continues to find gratification three days a week helping her psychology patients overcome life’s hurdles, while I treat barely a handful. I owe her even for my return to practice. In the throes of the depression, the thought of ever working again seemed overwhelming and incomprehensible. When I announced I would let my psychology license expire and save $400, she insisted I cling to hope.

I handle our investments, including Alberta’s retirement plans, but she has become an invaluable asset in managing our rental properties. As a “people person,” she’s more effective than I am with renters and our new property manager, who may dislike me as much as I dislike him. Here’s where the rubber meets the road: Between her private practice and her share of our dividend and rental income, Alberta is responsible for two-thirds of our income.

Forty years ago, I feared a sense of masculine inadequacy if I lost control over our finances—and almost sabotaged our relationship. Don’t get me wrong. Alberta is no saint. She can hurl epithets and slam doors with the best of them. But she never became the princess I so dreaded. Instead, in an ironic reversal of fortune, she helped me to become more of a prince.

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. Check out Steve’s earlier articles.

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