Marriage and Money
In this week’s Unhitched column, John and Patty Reid discussed issues that led to their divorce after 26 years of marriage, including a failed attempt to go into business with her sister’s family. We asked a therapist about dealing with money issues in marriage. Did you face a similar issue in your divorce? Or were you faced with other challenges?
“How couples handle money says a lot about how they see themselves,” said Joan Atwood, a New York marriage and family therapist and professor of counseling and mental health professions at Hofstra University. “Money is the metaphor.”
In her counseling practice, Dr. Atwood asks couples to dig deep into their beliefs about money. Does money mean safety? Does it signify success? Prestige? Are money decisions shared? If both partners are earning, is the money split or combined? How does self-esteem relate to earning? And if one partner isn’t working, how does that person glean respect?
Clearing these potential minefields before marriage can sometimes stave off problems later in the relationship.
But not always. Things change: businesses start and fail, jobs are landed and lost, market collapses affect prospects, investments and retirements.
Dr. Atwood, who is amassing data from hundreds of surveys on couples’ attitudes toward money, says forming an “empathic team” is crucial to supporting a marriage through the inevitable hard times. And knowing one’s own thoughts about money is as important as understanding a partner’s feelings and expectations.
But that’s not easy because opposites often attract. “Spenders attract hoarders, and worriers attract avoiders,” Dr. Atwood said.
Even in relationships where styles are similar, one partner may push the other into change. “Spenders will fight to be the super-spender, thus forcing the other to become more of a hoarder in order to set a boundary,” she said.
Communication and flexibility are needed to weather the inevitable money issues that arise. Dr. Atwood says boomers, especially those in their 50s, have been particularly hard-hit by cultural changes: marriages that began 20 years ago were started when the idea of a single breadwinner was more acceptable.
According to Dr. Atwood, most men, even if they began a relationship as the sole provider, have grown more appreciative of a more equal financial partnership.
“Being the sole provider means taking on all the responsibility for the success of the family,” she said. “It’s very stressful.” And when men fail financially, that can cause problems in the other minefield of relationships: sex.
“Women who need financial security to feel taken care of won’t want to have sex with someone who doesn’t make them feel safe,” she said. This Catch-22 — with men often needing assurance in the form of physical intimacy as women need assurance financially — can create resentment on both sides.
“In the days of old, the economic basis of marriage was made explicit,” she said. “Now it has been replaced by romantic love.”
In her “Families in Transition” course at Hofstra, Dr. Atwood tells her female students not to end their careers to raise families, citing divorce statistics as a warning. She has counseled many middle-aged divorced women stranded without relevant job skills or the self-esteem to start at an entry position, and cites the success of one client who worked as a bank teller and slowly moved into management over many years. Eventually, this woman was able to provide herself the security she once sought from her husband.
The Reids, the couple in the Unhitched column, faced many challenges beyond the financial problems caused by their failed business. “If they could have empathized more with each other’s situation, they might have made it,” Dr. Atwood said.
“But to me it doesn’t sound like this relationship is over,” she said. “They are still best friends, which means the door might still be open, slightly.”
- New York Times — Weddings/Celebrations — By Louise Rafkin
- Have you found the dozens of Relationship Experts who answer specific questions about marriage and money?
- Have you read any of the Romantipedia Guides?
- Use Twoology’s Relationship Tools to calendar and remind you of those things that are critical to the happiness of your relationship.