The Therapy Account

Recently a drama occurred in my office that reminded me once again of the challenges that couples often have in sharing the responsibilities of family finances.

As Charlotte and Mark sat down, I turned to Charlotte and asked her why she was coming to me. She flinched as if she had been hit, and said, “I’m the screw-up”

“What’s that mean”, I replied.

“I’ve never been able to manage our household funds.”    As she said these words, she grabbed some tissue from the tissue box on my desk. “I’ll need these,” she murmured, and I saw tears come to her eyes. She took a breath and continued.

For the twenty years we’ve been married I’ve never been able to talk about money with Mark. Mark gives me money, and I take care of the family finances. He never sees them. I’m always over budget and having to beg for money. This last year I started using credit cards to cover my shortfalls because I couldn’t bring myself to tell Mark that I was overspending. Finally I told him…”

At this point Mark interjected, “You didn’t tell me. I found the credit card debt by chance as I was looking over our mail. I was totally surprised. I didn’t know where the debt came from. I couldn’t believe we had it.”

“You’re right,” Charlotte said.

At this point Charlotte began to cry, and I tried to provide her with a little solace.

“Breakdowns between couples over finances are common. I assume that you were spending the money on your family and not on yourself,” I said.

“Oh yes, Charlotte replied. I was just spending on the kids’ clothes, food, and other household needs.”

“Then it isn’t so much a question of mismanagement as not having enough money.” I said.

“I think so, but Mark feels I spend too much.” As she said these words, she turned away from Mark and a look of anguish came over her face. “I felt we had to come here for help.”

Mark then said. “You asked Charlotte why she was here but you never asked me why I ‘m here”.

“I’m sorry” I said realizing that I had made a mistake in assuming that Charlotte was speaking for the two of them.

“I’m here to find someone I can feel comfortable talking with about our money issues.” Mark said.

“Okay”, I replied.

“I’m not so concerned about the credit card debt as I am about Charlotte’s not telling me. This is in issue of integrity. I told Charlotte that I would divorce her if this happened again. I can’t live with someone who is deceiving me.”

“I see.” I said, and paused. Mark had a point. Charlotte had deceived him. However, I didn’t feel her deception indicated a lack of integrity but a fear of the dire consequences of telling Mark.

“Mark, I see where you are coming from, and I understand why you are upset at Charlotte, but I don’t feel that Charlotte meant to be dishonest with you. She was too intimidated by you to tell you about the debt. I’m sure you didn’t mean to be, but if I read you right, from looking at your Financial Picture (Mark had given me his Financial Summary when he came in), you’re a person who has his financial act together, and you haven’t been able get into Charlotte’s shoes regarding her management problems. Inadvertently you set up a wall between your self and Charlotte with your judgements on her management.”

Mark looked at me, and I could see he wasn’t happy with what I had said.

However, I must have hit a chord of truth because I felt he was looking at me with a new respect.

“You’re right,” he replied. “I need to take some responsibility for this.”

He looked at Charlotte who had started to cry again. “Are you okay? Charlotte,” he asked. Charlotte continued to cry but said nothing. “ Did you hear me?” Mark asked,“ I’m willing to take part responsibility”.

I looked at Mark and interjected “a large part of the responsibility”.  Mark nodded his head in agreement.

“I’m crying with relief,” Charlotte said, “I never thought that I’d find anyone who would tell you that.”

From then on all of us were more comfortable, and I could tell that the couple was more receptive to working on their money issues.

I explained that they each had come to the marriage with a different value system that they had inherited from their families. Charlotte admitted that her family struggled to pay expenses, and Mark acknowledged that their family had more than enough money and that his father was an accountant and taught him how to manage money at an early age. Charlotte came from a family of artists (she was herself a free lance writer) who took little interest in money matters. Charlotte admitted that she felt very insecure making financial decisions, and that Mark flattened her with his overriding confidence.

As we were nearing the end of our first session, I asked them if they had a joint checking account.

“No, our names are on each other’s checking accounts, but we run our accounts totally separately”.

“Well, I may ask you to manage the house finances through a separate joint checking account. I laughed. I call it a therapy account since the two of you will have to manage it together.

“I think we can do that.” Mark said and Charlotte nodded her head in agreement.

As Charlotte and Mark left, I felt optimistic that the couple could do the work that I was going to give them now that they had agreed to share the responsibility for their family finances.

Accepting responsibility is much more than half the battle.

COMMENTARY

I’ve found one of the greatest challenges in couple’s managing money is their reluctance to communicate with each other. Often this is precipitated by one or both projecting their management judgements on to the other. These judgements create guilt and communication barriers. To avoid this, couples need to  discuss their management skills, accept each others’s management failures, and help each others improve their skills.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER

Have you openly discussed your feelings and abilities around managing your money?

Do you judge your partner or spouse for the way he or she manages money?

Have you tried to help your partner or spouse  improve her management skills?