DISCLAIMER: The following column is a composite of several different experiences I have had with clients. It does not depict a specific encounter. This story is not about you!

Money matters surface in many different ways in a marriage. In the extreme, it can be seen as a tool for control and even as a means of abuse. Though it affects our lives on a daily basis, some people feel uncomfortable discussing it. It’s a complicated necessity of life. But it cannot be ignored.

How husbands and wives deal with their relationship toward money and how it affects one another is somewhat different in each marriage. Years ago, it wasn’t unusual for a woman to totally check out when it came to understanding their family finances. It wasn’t considered bizarre for a wife to have no knowledge of how much money the family had, whether investments had been made, and in the extreme, how to even write a check. That was considered the husband’s job. Which I suppose could be okay assuming the wife never outlived her husband, or in more serious cases, in the advent of divorce. Suddenly, a crisis erupts.

These days, generally speaking, women are more knowledgeable about money matters, but many are still in the dark when it comes to fully grasping where the incoming salary is going. Particularly if their husband makes investments, purchases stocks, bonds, annuities, and so on. Some husbands would welcome and even encourage a curious wife who wants to learn and understand their family financial story. Yet, some husbands, for all sorts of reasons, feel threatened by such a request and deny their wives this knowledge.

Shirley came to see me by herself at first, before I ever got to meet her husband, Michael. Tensions in their marriage were rising, she was unhappy, and she needed some private time with me to organize her thoughts and figure out how to motivate Michael to join us. For that reason, I will begin with Shirley’s account of her sorrow.

She Said

Shirley arrived at my office, looking anxious, speaking very quickly, and giving the impression of a person who felt guilty talking about something as banal as money. “I really don’t know where to begin,” she said. “Because sometimes I feel totally justified in feeling the way I do and sometimes I wonder if I’m being unrealistic and self-centered talking about money and wanting to fight for more.

“I wasn’t always this way. I grew up in a middle-class home. Nothing crazy or extravagant. I never felt neglected financially by my parents, but I did babysit at times so I would have some extra pocket money for silly things. But truthfully, I never really thought much about money. My friends and I all seemed to have similar situations and we were fine. No one complained. Everyone was happy.

“When I first got married, Michael taught me about budgeting—something I had never heard of before. It made sense and I went along with it. We were both starting out and being responsible made sense to me. I was fine with being aware of the cost of things and thinking twice before purchasing something I didn’t really need. In fact, it felt good to be so dependable.

“A lot has changed over the past ten years. Michael and my brother-in-law (my sister’s husband) went into business together. Thank goodness, it appears that they have become very successful. I know that they are 50/50 partners, but somehow our lives look very different from each other. When we both bought homes at about the same time, my sister bought a home that is significantly larger and fancier than mine. That didn’t really bother me so much. I was grateful to have moved to the Five Towns and felt my home was fine. I didn’t need to live in a house that was too gaudy or over the top.

“But over the past few years, I can’t help but wonder why my sister and her husband are able to go on several vacations a year, why my sister wears mostly designer clothing, and why she has lots of jewelry and a lifestyle that doesn’t resemble mine at all. At first, I was kind of oblivious to the stark difference between how the two of us were spending and living. It wasn’t until our teenage daughter started asking questions that I had to stop and think about it and realized it made no sense.

“When I questioned Michael about it, about why I’m still on a budget and am forced to do without as if money was tight, he never wants to talk about it. When I ask for details about our financial situation, he clams up or says it’s none of my business. I never thought of myself as a terribly materialistic person, but his lack of financial disclosure has been building to a point that I’m becoming obsessed with his secrecy and lack of generosity.

“I don’t want to stand for this any longer. It makes no sense, and I know I sound like a child, but it’s just not fair. I want in. I want to know where we stand financially. I want to know where our money is going; I want to have some say in how it’s being used. I suddenly want a lot. And I’m not going to back down until things change.”

He Said

It took a bit of convincing on Shirley’s part to get Michael to come in and see me. The first time he showed up, it was clearly under duress. And he was not a happy camper. When I asked him whether he knew why Shirley was so anxious to speak to a couples therapist with him, he seemed to believe that it had something vaguely to do with money but was more focused on the fact that Shirley had been changing over the past few years and he wasn’t very happy about it.

As forthright as Shirley had been explaining her discontentment to me, I noticed her inability to just lay it all out for Michael in the same straightforward manner she had previously done when sitting alone with me. It took a great deal of gentle coaxing from me to enable Shirley to finally put it all out there for Michael to hear and digest.

When I asked Michael to confirm if what Shirley was saying was true, he tried to do everything possible to avoid answering the question. Though my role is to counsel couples and explore deeper issues, at that moment I realized a bit of lawyering was in order. “Is it true that you and your brother-in-law are equal partners?” I asked. “Well, I suppose we are,” Michael answered. “Would you agree that Shirley and your sister-in-law seem to be experiencing very different lifestyles despite the fact that you have three children to support while they have four?” I continued. Again, Michael agreed with some hesitation. “So, I’m curious as to why Shirley is being made to feel as though she has to watch every dime while her sister is living an extravagant lifestyle?” I rested my case.

Michael did not jump right in with explanations, apologies, or promises to allow Shirley to be a partner in their family finances. With time and patient conversation, we learned that Michael grew up in a very chauvinistic home and that mentality suited him just fine. “If you didn’t keep Shirley on such a tight leash, but trusted her to spend as she saw fit, what would be your concern?” I eventually asked him. Initially, it was clear that Michael lacked a certain amount of self-awareness, but with the right amount of encouragement, it was clear he also had tremendous trust issues and insecurities around money.

And then a bombshell. “What Shirley doesn’t know is that Heshy is in a terrible financial situation. Yes, thank G-d we have a successful business, but Heshy never learned how to say no to his wife. At this point, his credit card payments are insane, and he talks to me all the time about his worries that he will never be able to get himself out of the ditch his wife has gotten them into. He can barely sleep at night. I’m not going to make the same mistake. From the start, I’ve been very cautious about my money, and Shirley and I will never have to worry.”

I couldn’t help but notice his use of the words “my money,” which led us to a conversation about his attitude toward what was really “their” money, and after much discussion, Michael was eventually able to understand that a marriage is a partnership, which means partnering up when it comes to money as well.

My Thoughts

Shirley entered my office with lots of goals and very little information. Though disturbing, it was somewhat helpful for her to learn that her sister was spending like a madwoman. And although in the opposite way, her sister was just as clueless as Shirley about finances. Shirley was looking for answers. She wanted to know what Michael earned, how much money he had put aside over the years, where the money was kept, and also, she wanted a say in how the money was spent.

In couples therapy, it’s unusual for both husband and wife to get everything they want. Hopefully, they each get enough. With time, Michael finally shared their net worth with Shirley, where their money was sitting, and most important, he agreed to trust Shirley to spend more freely once she convinced him that she was responsible and would never go overboard. Frankly, there was a great deal of wiggle room between what Michael earned and how Shirley wanted to spend.

Michael did not agree to allow Shirley to weigh in on how their money would be invested. Shirley was somewhat disappointed, believing she had good instincts regarding money and could be a good partner in those decisions as well, but she accomplished enough to feel satisfied and grateful.

And despite the fact that Michael arrived for his first session feeling and acting defensively, with time, he eventually emerged a kinder, calmer, more trusting man. n


Esther Mann, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. She works with individuals, couples, and families. Esther can be reached at 516-314-2295 or by e-mail, mindbiz44@aol.com.


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