Allison and Peter’s relationship is an example of a successful marriage. They are both established in their careers, seem to align well regarding major life decisions and from all outward appearances are happy. Yet behind closed doors one would hear their arguments about saving for the future. Get closer still and one would observe the bills or mortgage payments that go unpaid to the extent that the couple is at times one payment away from losing their house.
Herein lies the confusion. Allison and Peter both work and earn salaries that allow for frequent vacations and dining out. Collectively, they do not live beyond their means. So, why then do their bills go unpaid and their arguments go unresolved?
Why Financial Therapy?
A recent Wall Street Journal article discussed the merits of financial therapy. Financial therapy brings the world of financial behaviors and beliefs together with therapy. It’s a focus of therapy that helps people uncover the source of emotions guiding their money decisions and, in the process, end self-destructive behaviors related to money (In many cases financial therapy is sought to resolve conflicts related to work).
Arguments about a couple’s saving versus spending strategies is a common motivation for seeking financial therapy.
Allison called one day to make an appointment. “We really come from two very different mindsets.” My husband and I are endlessly fighting about saving.” “I see. What about saving is the problem,” I asked? “We argue all the time about how much we should save!”
On the surface this sounds like a trivial, perhaps self-indulgent problem but Allison and Peter were arguing to the point of considering separation and perhaps a divorce. It seemed that Peter was adamant about their need to save to the extent that they were no longer paying their bills. This standstill was no laughing matter.
I recommended a financial intensive wherein clients explore their individual and joint (conscious and unconscious) childhood experiences, beliefs about money, and current behaviors. They agreed. I explained to them that our experiences in our family-of-origin or childhood often exist as underlying drivers for current financial behaviors. These experiences remain buried from view and below conscious awareness.
Making the Unconscious Conscious
Prior to our intensive they completed written exercises and assessments (One assessment explores early childhood and adult trauma and the other assessment evaluates money and work behaviors). Allison and Peter arrived for their session and brought their homework. I provided the assessment results. The in office work builds on history gathering, homework assignments, assessments and therapeutic exploration.
As I was gathering historical childhood information from Peter, he identified an unspoken but persistent irrational fear that he and Allison will lose their house and be homeless.
Peter’s fear is referred to as an irrational belief which is a belief or set of beliefs that create fear of happening but often never materialize in reality. His intensity of his fear of losing the house outweighed the reality of this occurring. In truth, Peter’s unresolved trauma along with a self-defeating pattern of allowing their mortgage payments to lapse, kept this fear alive and well!
“My mom and I lived in the house alone after my father died. She went on spending sprees with his insurance benefit and I didn’t know if we would have enough to pay the bills.”
Peter shared with Allison that he witnessed his mother’s spending habits change almost immediately following his father’s death. “I never saw my mom act this way before,” he exclaimed. At 14 y/o I had no idea what was happening. All I knew was that my father died and we began living the good life. This was so confusing for me and I missed my dad so much. It’s obvious to me now that I’m trying to control Allison in ways that I couldn’t control my mom.”
Yes, I said, it does seem obvious now to you both. It wasn’t so obvious before you both sat down to explore your differences about what money means and from where your beliefs about money and work were forged.
We went on to schedule some follow-up appointments with Peter to process his unresolved grief and together we created a plan to tackle their spending and saving behaviors. Peter continued to have some reduced fears about losing the house although to a lesser degree. He reported that when that fear came up today, he used it as a gratitude reminder that his mortgage was paid, the other bills were put on auto pay and they capped their saving to a responsible level.