"He's Always Obsessing About Money"
The Counselor's Turn
"Different spending habits can cause problems in a marriage, even in the best of times," the counselor said. "But when money is tight, those differences get magnified. Lisa and Drew were having extreme reactions to their new financial reality. She was very casual about it and he was all doom and gloom. But neither attitude was realistic. Yes, they'd lowered their standard of living and weren't able to spend as freely anymore. But they were in relatively decent shape: They weren't facing bankruptcy or foreclosure and weren't drowning in debt.
"My first goal was to get them to see their money differences in a positive way. One of the things that attracted Drew to Lisa was her spontaneity -- the very quality that led to her carefree spending. And Lisa liked Drew's fiscal responsibility: She told me that he provided the security she never got from her parents. I reminded her that the downside of this was the fact that he was cautious about spending.
"We discussed the value in both of their approaches to money but ultimately decided that, given the economy, it was in their best interest to try to cut back on spending. Drew had been the money manager in the family, but I suggested that Lisa get more involved. And once she started paying the bills and reviewing bank and investment statements, she became much more aware of their overall financial picture.
"I also tried to help Lisa understand why Drew needed her to be more frugal. 'When you spend money indiscriminately, you're asking him to live with incredible anxiety,' I told her. Finally, I encouraged Drew to stop monitoring his wife's spending on a day-to-day basis. I also told him to stop obsessing about what they don't have and to focus instead on what they do. 'Is it really so terrible if your son ends up going to a state school?' I asked. 'Feel good about what you can do for your kids, not upset about what you can't.'
"As they began to appreciate each other's perspective, they became less judgmental. 'I've gotten over my anger about that condo,' said Drew. 'Buying it wasn't the smartest financial decision, but it didn't ruin us.'
"The couple also learned how to talk about money in a less confrontational, calmer way. In our last session Lisa told me they'd discussed whether it was finally time to replace the broken doors on their garage. 'I found the doors on sale, so Drew agreed it was a smart time to buy them,' she said. 'Before counseling, he would have screamed at me for even suggesting it.'
"'I think that I'll always be more conservative with money than Lisa is,' Drew added, 'but at least I now can have a rational conversation with her about spending rather than getting angry. Therapy has been great for both of us. We've learned to appreciate our differences yet work together as a team at the same time.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2010.