Beyond Blame

Freeing yourself from toxic emotional bullsh*t

Denial and Delusion over Money

I'm money-conscious; my fiance isn't. Help!

Dear Dr. Alasko: "Ryan" and I are discussing marriage but we have a problem with money. I'm from a large family for whom money was always tight and am still paying off college loans. Ryan's family, contrarily, paid for his college—yet he hasn't saved a penny. I make my own coffee every morning, while Ryan buys a mocha latte. I pay all my own bills, while Ryan's family intermittently bails him out with cash. If I even mention a budget, he blows up. How do I handle this? I'm extremely frustrated. 


Dear Reader: You should be more than frustrated; you should be scared. Ryan is apparently functioning inside an adolescent reality bubble in which he pretends that his financial self-indulgence can sustain a functional lifestyle. You're fortunate to realize that joining him inside his bubble would mean constant, ongoing conflict.

Two powerful psychological dynamics are at work here: denial and delusion. Not only is Ryan in denial about how money actually works; he's created a delusional reality to maintain his behaviors.

Let's take these one by one.

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Denial is one of our "ego defense mechanisms," and serves the essential purpose of protecting us from reality's potential cruelties. Denial allows us "to not think about it" as a way to focus on something else that needs doing.

Without a healthy denial system, we'd be overwhelmed with worry about issues beyond our control.

In Ryan's case, however, he's misusing denial to ignore the fact that money is a finite resource (like time, health and life) and must be managed with care.

Delusion is linked to denial. When we deny an essential fact("I don't ever have to discipline my spending"), delusion provide an alternate reality. In this particular case the "reality" is one in which money magically appears or will appear, or things will work out in some fantasy realm, no matter how.

Denial and delusion, for example, worked hand in hand to help inflate the housing bubble. Some people repeatedly borrowed money against their homes, delusionally imagining that they'd never have to repay the loans because their dwellings would perpetually increase in value - a financial impossibility.

In addition, it's worrisome that Ryan blows up when you try to discuss money. His message is: "I like my delusional reality and I will not allow you to change it—don't bother me."

And from his short-term point of view, he's right. His parents continue to rescue him so why should he change? Making changes could be painful. He might have to make his own coffee. He might even have to challenge his overall self-indulgence!

I say that because self-indulgent behaviors are not isolated. I'd guess there are other areas where he maintains adolescent habits: not cleaning up after himself, piling up laundry, being frequently forgetful. After all, exploding when you try to discuss a highly important issue indicates serious holistic immaturity.

So yes, this is a problem that needs be solved, and you're wise to recognize it as one. If Ryan repeatedly refuses to address this issue, despite your best efforts, you'll know that he will do everything to maintain his delusional reality.

You'll also most likely be dealing not only with perennial money problems, but other self-indulgent behaviors as well. And marrying into delusion and self-indulgence is not wise.

Carl Alasko, Ph.D. is the author of Beyond Blame (Tarcher Penguin), and like his first book Emotional Bullshit, it has been published in five languages.

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