Money is a loaded topic for many married couples. Why? Money comes with baggage; emotionally charged reactions to how one feels, thinks or behaves around money. Money impacts how people relate to one another; it can ruin family relationships and even break up marriages when parties do not see eye to eye, or feel as though they have been treated unfairly.
Typically, people don't think about their deep feelings about money. Nor do they talk with friends and family about their personal attitudes and beliefs about money. They keep them bottled up inside.
So when the topic of money comes up, especially in an advising situation, it can create a variety of reactions from happiness to fear. The topic causes stress and anxiety, and the conversation becomes emotional rather than rational.
When working with married couples, the problem is multiplied. You are now managing two sets of habits, beliefs and emotions. These beliefs may be very different from one another and create tension and conflict in the relationship. My experience has indicated that about one-third of couples who see a financial professional report having marital issues, and research has shown that about one-third of couples who see a marriage therapist report financial problems.1
Or, as I like to say, couples go to their marriage counselor and talk about money and go to their financial professional to talk about their marriage.
Let's look at an example. Ray and Mary are middle-aged and married. Ray constantly worries about his portfolio performance. Ray's anxiety raises when the stock market dips, even a bit. Mary tries to calm Ray by telling him not to worry. However, her assurance that "everything will be okay" does not help Ray relax. They have even fought in front of you about how they believe their assets should be allocated.
When Ray was young, his grandparents lost their home due to lack of retirement planning and high medical bills. As a result, his aging grandparents moved in with Ray's parents. As the oldest child in the family, Ray had to help care for his ill grandparents. He watched his own parents financially struggle to take care of not only Ray and his siblings, but also Ray's grandparents. As a young adult, he vowed that he would never put such responsibility on his own children or grandchildren. As soon as he started earning an income as a teenager, he opened a savings account and earmarked part of that savings for retirement.
From an outsider looking into Ray and Mary's relationship, they appear to have their finances in order and a clear pathway to retirement. However, Ray's worry isn't rational. To him, money is the only form of security that exists. If the money disappears, then in his mind he has failed and will become a financial burden to his children and grandchildren. On the other hand, Mary feels everything is fine because she views their finances from a more rational perspective. Mary's ease with the situation actually causes Ray to have even more anxiety, as he believes that she should understand his feelings and be on his side.
What can be done to help a couple like Ray and Mary? For decades, there were few good answers. Today however, there is something called financial therapy. Financial therapy involves the integration of cognitive, emotional, behavioral, relational and economic aspects that influence financial well-being, and ultimately, quality of life. Financial therapy professionals understand the interpersonal and intrapersonal aspects of money and utilize this knowledge to help clients achieve their financial goals.
In fact, there is a professional organization dedicated to the practice of financial therapy. The Financial Therapy Association (FTA) is comprised of practitioners and scholars from the fields of mental health (e.g., marriage and family therapists, counselors, psychologists, social workers, life coaches) and financial services (e.g., financial planners, financial counselors, financial educators, financial coaches).*
Here are 4 signs that indicate that a couple might benefit from financial therapy:
- The couple argues, but never resolves the issue. All couples argue, of course. If they don't, it probably means they are not talking about issues that need to be discussed. But arguing is worrisome when issues are never resolved, or when the way the couple argues is destructive to one another.
- The couple plays the blame game. Blaming one another for what has or has not happened in carrying out a financial plan is not useful. Conflict takes at least two people. When partners blame each other, they fail to look at their own contributions to the problem and what they can do differently in order to help resolve the issue.
- One or both partners displays uncontrollable worry, fear, anxiety or depressive symptoms around money. When a psychological issue impedes the clients to make progress in their financial plan, they should be referred to a licensed mental health professional.
- Only one partner contributes to the planning process. This could be a sign of a power and control dynamic in which one partner controls the other by not allowing them to participate.
*The Financial Therapy Association has a network of providers who refer to themselves as financial therapists. To find one near one of your clients, search by city or state: http://www.financialtherapyassociation.org/find-a-ft
1Aniol, J. C., & Synder, D. K. (1997). Differential assessment of financial and relationship distress: Implications for couples' therapy. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 23(3), 347-352. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1752-0606.1997.tb01042.x
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