In Financial Couples Therapy, Money Counts
Money matters in your relationship and in financial couples therapy. The assertion that money is frivolous or silly is a fairly privileged assumption. Money gives us access to food and shelter, provides our children with opportunities, can keep us healthy and safe, and can be a critical part of giving us options. Money can also be a location of emotional angst, including, yes, overstating its importance.
In so many ways, money matters specifically for couples. Marriage is an economic partnership. Money even affects unmarried couples and couples who aren’t living together and sharing expenses formally. In relationships, as with any emotional issue, the interplay of two people’s emotional relationships with money adds exponential complexity. Money, in short, can be many things in your relationship and therefore, I’ve highlighted six things money can be that I’ve seen in financial couples therapy:
1. Money Is Power And Money Can Represent Power
So often we use the language of “x represents y,” but with money, this, to me, is an extension of some sort of liberalism (the ethic of saying “money doesn’t matter,” while having money and having control over money). Making decisions and having control over money is powerful. For example, one partner can take the lead on a series of decisions and have more awareness and savvy with money. This can keep the other partner in a position of less awareness and therefore, less comfort about where the couple stands financially, what the future holds and (this is important not to shy away from) less certainty from which to make decisions about whether they want to leave the relationship.
At the same time, one can feel powerful when one earns money, earns more money or has some control over money. For instance, a partner paying for an expensive dinner is sexy and powerful. These can be proxies for other things.
2. Money Is Vulnerability
If I don’t have money, I have less choice. If I am not fluent in managing money and not confident in my ability to make money or good monetary decisions, I am less powerful and more vulnerable in a world in which money is what gets things done. On a simple level, people can take advantage of one another with money, both in relationships and out. At an extreme, this is effectively stealing, but it can also look like two partners sharing money and making spending decisions in ways that aren’t equitable or are otherwise at odds with stated agreements.
One can imagine what is perhaps quite an extreme case–one partner earns money and maintains control over money, while the other is left vulnerable to manipulation and control by that partner. There are less extreme versions, however, that are not abuse per se, but can still be deeply manipulative. The earning partner may say, “You don’t need to know how much money we have. We’re fine and I’m taking care of that.” This might even be intended to be reassuring–more caring than “burdening” a partner. While this can take place under any gendered scenario, it’s important to note that women are very often more vulnerable than men in these areas.
3. Money Often Takes The Form Of Burdensome Debt
In my financial couples therapy practice, I see how debt affects relationships a great deal. When partners get together, the debt of one partner becomes the debt of both. Couples make all sorts of decisions about this and many options are valid. These could look like sharing in that debt or having one partner take the responsibility to pay off his or her debt. They may have less discretionary money or take on more work in order to pay that debt off. It’s important to note that while not all debt is bad debt, debt is a net burden that is carried everywhere emotionally.
4. Having Money Can Be A Burden Too
As I wrote about extensively in a previous blog post, couples with a good deal of wealth can still face plenty of challenges–both material and emotional–with money. It is important to say that even in a situation where both partners have a great amount of money, the threat of this environment of plenty diminishing is very real and can weigh on the couple.
5. Money Is Ammunition In A Fight
I see money used as ammunition in a fight anecdotally in financial couples therapy all the time. Maybe whenever a couple fights, there’s rhetoric around one or the other partner being a problematic spender or being ungrateful for the other partner’s material providing. There can also be guilting about debt or one partner having funded a past expense or debt. Guilt wielded in fights can often come in the form of jokes that have a sting to them, especially when discussing sensitive money issues like which partner earns more.
6. Money Is A Form Of Taking Care Of
Taking care of a partner or one’s family with money is a lovely thing. Again, we often diminish the importance of this in a sort of liberalism around money. But, for an earning partner, this can be a source of great pride. We need to refrain from downplaying the importance of this.
It should be noted that this pride is also often gendered (“I’m a man, a husband, a father providing for my family”). There’s a stereotype of sorts we have about men taking pride in providing–that it’s caveman-esque in some way. I think it’s a reaction to a sort of 1950’s idea in which men were granted entitlement to invest little in the care of the home and family becomes of their economic standing in the family. We need to find new ways of valuing providing for a couple and family–celebrating that effort as meaningful to the family just as we need to celebrate all sorts of other contributions (emotional, creating a warm home, raising children, etc.).