We Always Fight About Money

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The Therapist Says

Demosthenous: I'm not surprised that Terry and Charlie fell in love. We're often attracted to someone who is our opposite in order to make up for what we feel we lack now, or never had, in childhood. Tight, controlled Terry adored Charlie's lighthearted optimism and his ability to roll with life's punches. Fearful of abandonment and further rejections, she sensed that Charlie would love her the way no one else ever had.

Charlie, on the other hand, was drawn to Terry's beauty, warmth, and solidity. He knew she would provide the structure for his life that he seemed unable to provide for himself. But financial issues became the battlefield upon which their duels were fought.

My goal is to help Charlie hold onto his dreams until he's in a position to fulfill them. At the same time, I want Terry to find the security she needs to live day by day.

Terry sees everything through the prism of her unhappy childhood, and she tends to magnify a problem until it's out of proportion to reality. While not having money to pay the bills is a real concern that Charlie has to address, Terry's runaway anxieties make a difficult situation even harder. She needs to think about why she might be feeling such a desperate need to control their finances. Simply airing some of the reasons for her money worries will help Terry better understand why she's so panicky, as well as why she's so critical of Charlie. "You need to find a way to help Charlie reach your goal of security without punching a hole in his dreams," I told Terry. As she came to understand better what money represented in her life, and as we talked about how much she did want to preserve her marriage, she was more willing to make changes in herself.

Though Charlie is adamant about his perfect childhood, I suspect that he never really received the kind of support a child needs to develop confidence or the encouragement to persevere. Certainly, his parents rote reaction to the bully had an impact on his confidence and sense of safety, as did their failure to nourish his dream of playing baseball. Also, their inability to talk to Charlie about their dissatisfaction with his old girlfriend sent the message that his needs were unimportant and that communication had little value. Charlie adopted the same attitude with Terry whenever difficult topics needed to be aired. As a result, he didn't know how to listen, and he lacked the skills to express his feelings and needs.

Counseling, which lasted about a year, focused first on helping Terry and Charlie enjoy each other's company and learn to respect the other's opinions and ideas, even if they didn't agree. Although they hardly spent any time alone together, tension between them ran so high that even going out for a hamburger gave them too much time to argue. Instead, I suggested they join the inexpensive gym or a bowling league, so they could get some exercise and have fun together. Couples underestimate the value of simply spending time and meshing the rhythms of their days. This helped Terry and Charlie laugh more and fight less. One weekend, Terry bought tickets for the circus and the whole family went.

At this point, we could start improving their communication skills. Terry couldn't understand why Charlie never took her advice. "He feels besieged," I pointed out. "No matter how sound your ideas, if you nag or belittle him, he feels like a naughty boy and he'll tune you out." As she started to recognize her part in their drama, Terry worked hard to recognize the tone in her voice as well as her tendency to immediately assume that something her husband suggested or planned couldn't possibly work. "At least talk about it," I urged. "Open it up for discussion." Once she did, Charlie dropped his guard and became more interested in making solid changes in his attitudes and actions.

Of course, Charlie needed to hear, and really understand, the points Terry was making. I suggested they attend a free seminar on money management offered at a local bank. They had avoided hammering out a spending plan because they assumed it would take them a long time. In fact, the seminar leader told them that it should take no more than a weekend of thinking and analyzing their checkbook and six months worth of bank card statements, followed by a few minutes every day and an hour or two once a month to evaluate how they were doing. Even though Terry is still in charge of paying the bills each month, to build trust it's essential for Charlie to sit there and be involved so he knows what's happening with the family finances.

To jumpstart their money discussions, I had them write down a list of their dreams. Most people never take the time to clarify what they really want from their money. I asked them to write down what they would like to have or do in the next year, in five years, and in 10 years. Charlie had fun dreaming about owning a small company and a sailboat and having time to travel but Terry stuck with the practical. She wanted medical insurance, enough money in savings for emergencies, and a full-time job for her husband that offered a sound pension plan. She did include one "frivolous" dream: "I'd like to take a vacation to the Caribbean with my husband." I pointed out that just because priorities and dreams don't mesh doesn't mean they're mutually exclusive. You may not have the money to do everything at the same time, but if you have the right attitude and know how to talk about your goals, you can explore what you need to do to attain them. "If you adopt a saving and spending plan that feels comfortable, and promise to compromise to help each other meet goals, you can accomplish your dreams," I assured them.

We also helped Charlie figure out his career plans. He decided to look for a contracting job with a construction firm. "I know I'm good for five or 10 years, until we get our footing. It will be worth it to see my kids and Terry more," he said. That doesn't mean he's forsaking the idea of starting his own business one day. Next year, when her youngest is in nursery school, Terry plans to work part-time, which will further ease their money worries. So far, they haven't set aside any money for college, but since their children are still small, they plan to wait a few more years until they have a better handle on their expenses.

At one point, their landlord asked if they'd like to buy the house they lived in and Charlie jumped at the chance. For the first time, they had to get a mortgage and budget for the payments. "I think that's motivated Charlie to complete all those half-finished projects," Terry noted. "He's doing most of the work himself, and his friends from the firm are pitching in with the rest at cost."

Terry came to our last session with two airplane tickets. "My in-laws said they'd watch the kids and we found these low fares, so we're going to Puerto Rico," she announced joyfully. I have confidence that these two are on the right track to working out any future problems together, so neither feels shortchanged.



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