Inside Therapy: Couples and Money

Monday, March 12, 2012


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When the economy tanked, couples lined up to pay for therapy. Why?

Sometime in late 2008, my office phone began to ring with astonishing frequency. It rang and rang and rang. The US economy had tanked in September, and a whole lot of couples were coming to therapy.

When bank accounts go down, stress on a couple goes up.  Little disagreements become big disagreements. And when those disagreements are about money, things can heat up fast.

In 2009, The New York Times reported on a study by Jeffrey Dew at Utah State University which found that couples who disagree about finances once a week are over 30 percent more likely to split up than ones who disagree about finances once or twice a month. Dew’s data also indicated that arguments about money are a stronger predictor of divorce than arguments about all the other things couples usually fight about—including sex.

But to twist a Clintonian phrase: “It ain’t the economy, stupid.”

Dead-end arguments about money

Lots of couples seek therapy because they’re stuck in dead-end arguments about money. But if money were the most important thing to these people, they wouldn’t be so willing to hand it over to therapists in an attempt to save their relationships. 

Certainly, cash-strapped couples in a tight economy have to make practical decisions about how to allocate resources. But couples have to make tricky decisions every day. What makes the dollar such a flashpoint? And why are fights about money more divisive than fights about, say, parenting, or whose family to visit during the holidays?

Money as symbol

Money is more than our legal tender. It’s a symbol. And in our psyches, the most powerful symbols are those that represent the things we care about most. Money is a magnet for these things; it draws them towards itself, then holds them tight. Like some highly fortified subterranean vault, money becomes a repository for our deepest concerns—it represents our hopes and fears about the availability of our most basic emotional needs.

And what are those? People will answer the question differently, but ask around and you’ll find two basic themes: security and freedom. We crave safety while we yearn for adventure. We seek stability as we pursue possibility. A flush bank account suggests that each of these will be available when we need them. An overdrawn bank account charges us with a frisson of fear.

No kisses from coins

But try as we might to get money to satisfy these fundamental human needs, there’s no getting a kiss from a coin. We’re designed by nature to seek stability and comfort from other people, not gold. The problems begin when we start to imagine that our access to what we need depends more on our wallets than one another.

Usually, when a couple is fighting over money, it isn’t because the people arguing care more about dollars than they do about each other. It’s because the they haven’t yet figured out what it is they’re actually struggling to talk about. Almost all recurrent arguments about money revolve around these questions:

  • “How much do I matter to you?”
  • “Are my needs important, too?”
  • “Is what I want as important to you as what you want?” and “Is what I want as important to you as what the kids want?”
  • “Where do I—and my happiness—stand on your list of priorities, really?”


Most of the time, though, these questions come out sounding more like: “All you ever want to spend money on is the stinkin’ Red Sox!”

Lurking questions

If you’re in a relationship and think you don’t have these concerns lurking around somewhere in the back corners of your heart, check again. Even the healthiest and most secure relationships abound with them. In fact, in healthy and secure relationships, questions like these aren’t stigmatized or belittled—they’re acknowledged and attended to. They’re looked on as an opportunity to comfort one another.

One of the things that a century of psychotherapy has shown is that these kinds of questions—about where we really stand in the hearts and minds of those closest to us—don’t go away once we get older. If anything, they increase. Exponentially. But this turns out to be good news: like money in a long-held savings account, these concerns gather interest and, when we manage them wisely, they become the source of more—not less—security and freedom.

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Archie Roberts is a psychotherapist, professor, and writer. He's consulted to organizations around the world and makes his home in Providence.

For more coverage of relationships, don't miss Archie Roberts on GoLocalTV, fresh every day at 4pm and on demand 24/7, here.


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