Off the Couch

Thoughts about the therapeutic process, and the dynamics of client-therapist interactions.

Money, Selfishness...and Love

When a fight over money is not about money - and what you can do about it.

Annie* used almost an entire box of tissues in her first therapy session with me. Barely able to talk through her tears, she managed to let me know that her marriage was in deep trouble. The main problem, she said, was money. She and her husband had both worked full time at until the birth of their first child. At that time they had agreed that Annie would take some time off to be home with the baby. Annie had not liked being at home. “I’m not very organized,” she said, “and I realized that I missed the structure of work.” She also missed her colleagues and the work itself, which she had always enjoyed a great deal.

When her child was nearly a year old, Annie went back to work part-time, having worked out an arrangement in which she and a colleague shared one full-time position. “I really work more like ¾ time,” Annie confided. “But for the most part it’s a good setup.” Another child was now on the way, and Annie had planned to continue with the current arrangement when her maternity leave was over. But her husband had other ideas.

“I love my work,” she said. “He hates his. And he wants to cut back on it. He’s proposing that he stay at home and take care of the kids, and I go back to work full-time.” There were several problems with this plan. While Annie did not like being at home all of the time, she did like being a part of her child’s life and did not want to be away from home the long hours that a full-time position would require. She had suggested to her husband that he take a part-time job instead. “That way we could share childcare, housekeeping and making an income.” But it was harder to find part time work in his field than in hers, and their income would go down considerably if he did. Because Annie’s job paid more than his, if she took a full-time position their finances would not change considerably.

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And this, it turned out, was the crux of the problem. Annie thought they could manage quite well on two part-time salaries. “We’d have to cut corners here and there,” she said, “but it would be manageable.” Her husband disagreed. “He doesn’t want to give up his expensive habits – buying high end electronics and cameras. But I don’t want to go to work to pay for those things.” Annie was convinced that without those purchases they could be quite happy with two part-time jobs. Again her husband disagreed, saying that she spent far more money than he did, and that she would have to give up things she didn’t even think about. He listed trips to the beauty parlor (“I go once every six-eight months,” Annie told me), new clothes (“I don’t shop,” she added. “All of my maternity clothes are hand-me-downs.”).

Annie and her husband were struggling with one of the major causes of marital difficulty: money. (Here are links to other posts where I’ve written about some related issues.) But as is often true, the issues that she was describing were not simply about their finances, but were also about a number of other subtle and less easily addressed dynamics in their relationship. Psychotherapists have long accepted that money has many meanings. As one colleague puts it, “Money, psychologically speaking, is our projection onto coins, bills, bank accounts, and other financial instruments of our beliefs, hopes, and fears about how those things will affect who we are, what will happen to us, and how we will be treated by others or by ourselves.”

Annie and her husband were, like many other couples, struggling not only over finances, but also over questions of who they were and what they would be going forward. They were concerned about being good parents, raising happy, healthy children, and having the material and emotional goods that make for happy, healthy families. As Annie talked about some of these underlying issues in therapy, she began to gradually realize that both she and her husband were afraid that with the birth of their second child, which they very much wanted, their lives were going to shift radically and uncomfortably. They knew that two children multiplied exponentially the amount of time and attention parents had devoted to a single child, and their lives had already changed in many ways.

“I guess we’re both trying to protect ourselves,” Annie said to me one day. “We do want these children, and we want to make their lives as rich and full as possible; but we also want to have something that’s just for ourselves.” Her husband’s continued purchases of expensive electronics and cameras, she now realized, was his way of telling himself that he would not have to give up everything he loved in order to be a good parent. “We actually started to talk about that,” she said. “About the idea that to be good parents we also need to make sure that we give ourselves some of the things that make life fun for us.” As they opened up the possibility that their arguments about money actually had other meanings, they began to find solutions to the financial issues. Annie’s husband agreed that they would both take part-time positions, and they both agreed to put on hold any major expenses for personal pleasure. They also set up a savings account specifically ear-marked for “non-necessary purchases” – cameras and electronics, vacations, evenings out. “We have to choose what to spend the money on together,” Annie said. “It won’t be easy. But it makes us both feel a lot better that we know that doing something just for fun is part of the game-plan.”

*names and identifying information changed to protect individuals and families

 

References:

Trachtman, R. (1999). The money taboo: its effects in everyday life and in the practice of psychotherapy. Clinical Social Work Journal 27(3):275–288.

Lapides, F. (2010) The Implicit Realm in Couples Therapy: Improving Right Hemisphere Affect-Regulating Capabilities. The Clinical Social Work Journal, 2010, vol 39.

Leone, C. (2008). Couple Therapy from the Perspective of Self Psychology and Intersubjectivity Theory. Psychoanalytic Psychology, vol 25.

Barth, F.D. (2001) Money as a tool for negotiating separateness and connectedness in the therapeutic relationship. Clinical Social Work Journal, Vol. 29, No. 1.

Teaser image source:  http://minglecity.com/profiles/blogs/couples-fighting-over-money-2

F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and author in private practice in New York City.

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