"He's Spending All Our Money!"
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"He's Spending All Our Money!"

Deb is tired of Neil's frivolous spending. Neil doesn't think his spending is a problem if it improves the family business. Can this marriage be saved?
The Couple

Deb: 51, homemaker

Neil: 55, entrepreneur

Married: 22 years

Kids: Katy, 19; Lauren, 14

The Counselor

Patty Ann Tublin
Stamford, Connecticut

The Background

Neil thinks of himself as an entrepreneur and has a spend-money-to-make-money philosophy. Deb says his bad business investments are bankrupting them and that he's squandering the family's money.

Deb's Turn

"From the outside Neil and I must seem like we've got it made. We own a real-estate business that brings in good money. We have a big house and a country-club membership. But the fact is we're nearly broke because Neil's spending is totally out of control. I don't know how we'll ever pay off our credit cards. What's left in our checking account each month is barely enough to cover the mortgage.

"It's not just that he buys tons of stuff we don't need, like artwork, designer clothes, and high-end electronics. He also keeps investing in side businesses that don't make sense. He'll sink thousands of dollars into an ostrich farm or one of those deals where you sell vitamins from home. He says he's trying to come up with a "Plan B" in case our company hits a rough spot, but these schemes are draining us dry.

"My brother started paying our daughter's college tuition this year because we don't have the cash. It's humiliating. I'm so anxious about it I can barely sleep. But when I beg Neil to stop spending, he ignores me.

"I know what it takes to grow a business! Before we had kids, I was an analyst on Wall Street, and lately I've been helping Neil at the office. He's got amazing vision and drive but he needs someone who worries about the details. And that ends up being me.

"Yes, I'm big on predictability and order. But Neil is totally irresponsible -- and it goes beyond money. He's late for everything. When we meet friends for dinner, they end up waiting for an hour because Neil lost track of time. It drives me crazy, but he just laughs it off. Last week he missed half of our younger daughter's piano recital. Fortunately, she didn't notice he was missing, but I was ready to kill him."

Neil's Turn

"Listen, since I was 12 years old I've been an entrepreneur. As a kid I'd do anything I could think of to make a buck -- deliver newspapers, clean houses, or sell clams I dug up at the beach. I even sold flowers I cut from the neighbors' backyards. I put myself through college and went on to build several very successful businesses.

"I see money as a form of energy that fuels the creative process. You borrow it, you make something fantastic with it, and eventually you pay it back. Some of my ventures may have fizzled, but you can't get anywhere without taking risks. Deb doesn't seem to understand that. She's a bit of a control freak. Me, I'm absolutely confident in my ability to turn a profit. That's why I don't worry about buying things.

"I admit that my view of time is more relaxed than Deb's is. But when you're running a company, there's always that one last call you've got to make. My whole life is my business and my family. I don't drink a lot. I don't gamble. I don't even go golfing with the guys on weekends. We live in an expensive part of the world and I'm the breadwinner, the person who's responsible for carrying all of us financially. But when I try to push things to the next level, Deb can't handle it. For example, I like to throw a party at the local marina every Friday to prospect for clients. It's a smart investment. But she says, 'Can we make it once a month instead of once a week?' Frankly, her attitude baffles me. Why not keep moving forward? Deb just checks out after a certain point."

Deb's Turn

"Of course I check out. We can't afford to be throwing weekly cocktail parties! These days Neil gets so carried away by his projects that it scares me. I feel like I can't depend on him financially or personally.

"When we first met I fell in love with his spontaneity and optimism. I'd been dating stodgy investment bankers. He'd just come from crewing a yacht on the Mediterranean and he was starting a business selling sailboats. Before we had kids and responsibilities, his eagerness to try new challenges was fun and exciting. But now it's harder and harder to keep up with him. He'll be so amped about some half-baked venture that he'll jump on it without consulting me -- or he'll talk me into it, because he's the quintessential salesman. Then it tanks, and he's too depressed to get out of bed for a week. Pretty soon he gloms on to another idea and we're back on the roller coaster. He says, 'This time it's going to be different.' But it never is.

"It's true that Neil's family was very different from mine. But we have our own family now, and we need to work as a team. I love Neil and I'm committed to this marriage. Right now, though, I don't feel safe. I don't feel respected. I don't feel happy. And I don't want to live my life this way."

Neil's Turn

"Deb just needs to control things. I adore my wife, but we come from different worlds. Deb's father died when she was a girl, and her mother raised three kids on the insurance money, watching every penny. My dad was like me -- outgoing and entrepreneurial. He liked to live large. Whenever he could afford it, he made sure his family had the best. When times were lean, we all stayed positive and we got through it."

The Counselor's Turn

"Major disagreements over money can tear a couple apart no matter how much they love each other or how long they've been married. But when I first met Deb and Neil, I suspected something else was going on. Neil was talking so fast that I felt out of breath just listening to him. Deb's description of his wild highs and lows -- and his reckless impulsivity -- also rang alarm bells. Thinking Neil might be having a manic episode, I referred him to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with bipolar disorder.

"This condition, also known as manic depression, is surprisingly common among successful business people. Health professionals who treat Wall Street CEOs will tell you that many of them are bipolar. If it's not too extreme, mania can give you tremendous energy and confidence. But it can also make you incredibly distractible and disorganized. You can't set boundaries. You say, "Yes, yes, yes, I'll do one more thing. I'll buy one more thing." The disorder can create career trouble and financial hardship, and it can be disastrous for intimate relationships. Yet many manic-depressives function very well in jobs that require risk-taking, and their illness may go undetected for decades.

"For Deb the diagnosis almost came as a relief. It meant there was a chemical imbalance driving Neil's extreme behavior -- something that could be dealt with like any other serious but treatable chronic disease. And Neil wasn't really surprised. His own physician had suggested a few years earlier he might be bipolar, but he'd brushed it off. Grudgingly, Neil agreed to go on medication. After a couple of weeks it slowed him down enough that he could listen to Deb, and to me. He began to understand that their marital situation was desperate. He also confessed to me that his father had been bipolar and had been hospitalized twice as a result. I made it clear that if Neil wanted to save his marriage, he was going to have to keep taking his meds. He promised he would. Then we got to work.

"Part of the challenge for them was acknowledging Neil's illness while maintaining a fair balance of power in the relationship. We created a system where Deb had control over their finances -- not to punish Neil, but to protect the family and to play to both of their strengths. He agreed that Deb was better with the numbers, and he actually found it freeing to hand that off to her. I told Neil he could still be the entrepreneur, looking for new opportunities and using his charisma to draw in new clients. But before he embarked on any new ventures, he had to discuss it with his wife. If she said no, he had to realize it meant no. I had him begin a journal so that he could keep track of the cycles in his moods and catch himself if his highs or lows started getting out of hand again. Then we could talk through what was happening and have his doctor adjust his meds.

"Not all of Neil's problems stemmed from brain chemistry, though. Part of his poor judgment came from his upbringing. His family had lived beyond their means. His parents had a chauffeur and the kids went to private schools, but when Neil's father died he left no money. Neil had to learn to delay gratification. Just because an object was shiny didn't mean he had to have it. As a kid he'd gotten used to doing what he wanted, because his folks weren't paying close attention. So instead of asking their permission when he came up with a money-making scheme -- like selling stolen flowers from the neighbors' gardens -- he'd just followed his impulses. Neil's old habits were harming his family. I worked with him in private sessions to change them.

"Deb had to change some of her own attitudes and habits as well. First, she needed to understand that Neil wasn't being intentionally disrespectful when he was late or when he spent too much money. He just wasn't seeing clearly. He really did love her, and he wanted to do the right thing, but the disease was clouding his judgment. Even with medication he was never going to change completely. So she had to adjust her expectations and behave accordingly. And as she had said herself, his spontaneity and enthusiasm are a large part of his charm and do sometimes give him an edge in business.

"However, I told Deb to trust her intuition when Neil tried to talk her into something that seemed like a bad bet. I knew she'd always seen herself as a team player. She didn't like to be a killjoy. But she had to trust her gut and stick to her guns. I also advised her to develop practical solutions. Since punctuality was important to her, I suggested that she and Neil take two cars whenever they went out together to an event. I also urged her to start going to the gym and doing yoga on a regular basis, which would help her deal with her built-up stress.

"It's been three years since Deb first called me and she and Neil are still working on improving their relationship. But they've come a huge distance. They're nearly out of debt. Deb has become a full partner in their business, and it's flourishing. Neil has opened up some new income streams, this time with her full approval. He's kept his promises about taking his meds. Their sense of trust is stronger than ever and they communicate better. Recently Neil told me, "I'm never going to be a cautious corporate type, and she's never going to be a risk-taker. But Deb and I understand each other's perspectives better than we did before."

Deb agreed. "I was worried sick before -- but not anymore. I feel like I'm back in control of my own life."

Can This Marriage Be Saved?® is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. The story told here is true, although names and other identifying information have been changed to conceal identities.