"He's Spending All Our Money!"
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.