Couples and Money in Harsh Economic Times

Couples and Money in Harsh Economic Times
by Rachel Bar, LMFT

Money has always been one of the main reasons for couples’ conflicts. Together with sex and ‘the in laws’, it created the “fearsome threesome” - subjects that create havoc, resentment; and bring couples to counseling and even break a couple apart.

Despite the universal impact of finance on individuals and couples - the subject of money is often ignored or avoided in therapy, mostly because many clients don’t think therapists can help them with their financial problems; and at the same time, therapists are reluctant to introduce the subject because of their own discomfort; lack of knowledge about financial matters; and/or fear of invading client's privacy.

However, this is now changing because of the dire economic situation in the country. The subject that was even more difficult to address than sex is taking center stage.

This new reality is not only about losing a job, even though this is definitely one of the most traumatic events in a couple’s life. It can be as simple as feeling the fear of a general economic downturn, and struggling with the anxiety it produces.

Bill and Linda

Bill and Linda work in the banking industry and in computer programming respectively. They have been married for twelve years and have two children.

Despite the fact that they both still have jobs, they follow the news obsessively, and read everything about the state of employment in California. Bill has nightmares about being laid off, and Linda is worried about their financial security even though her boss reassured her that her job is safe.

When they came to see me in January, Bill was told that his company is not going to give any bonuses this year. Bill could not shake off his fears and agitation, despite the fact that their income was sufficient for maintaining a comfortable lifestyle. Moreover, his mood and outbursts were having a negative impact on the family.

In our first session Linda sarcastically put Bill down for his need to draw everyone into "his doomsday imaginary world". Bill who seemed exhausted and impatient, preferred to focus on the "stupidity of spending money on therapy, at a time when they were financially challenged".

I validated his sentiment - agreeing that therapy does cost money, and acknowledged that as a banker, it’s likely he would put immediate practicality over ‘getting a better understanding of his feelings.’ I then said, "It is possible that therapy is going to help with what precipitated your nightmares, your agitation and the conflict within your relationship”.

I then offered, “in times of financial uncertainty, managing emotions is not only helpful for family and marriage; but may also translate into a more effective attitude at work – therefore, actually reducing a source of insecurity.”

Bill chuckled, and his posture seemed to relax a bit. I knew that I got his attention, and I proceeded to talk about the need to commit to a specific number of sessions in order to see some results.

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Bill and Linda were angry with each other at the point of committing to therapy. He, because she did not understand his fears, and was impatient with him; and she, because he had become controlling and dictatorial and, “just not fun to be with anymore”.

After taking a short history, I realized this couple had been loving and functional most of their married life.

However, up to this point in their relationship, they’d had no major financial challenges to face up to – and this type of conflict left them helpless.

Bill’s severe agitation and nightmares suggested some underlying issue. Therefore, I began to suspect that Bill was “hearing voices”.

No, he was not hallucinating or paranoid, but this is my expression for the inner voices from our past that we hear when confronted with fear and insecurity.

I shared this insight with them; and asked both of them to give me permission to work with Bill, with Linda’s role being only an observer.

By that time it was clear that something other than simple job-insecurity had brought this otherwise competent and successful man to his knees – but what was it?

-=+=-

I guided Bill through imagery to promote body relaxation, and gently asked him to bring back to his body the anger he has been feeling. When told by him that the anger “is in my head”, I asked him to stroke his head with his hands a couple of times and to remember to breathe.

While he was doing that, I asked him to recall if there was someone in his past that would sooth his fears.

Bill’s eyes filled with tears as he was flooded by emotions, and he started to talk about how his father could not keep a job; and about his angry mother who would scream at everyone because of their financial burdens and her disappointment in his father. He then said with bitterness, “No. To answer your question – there was no one to soothe me.”

I ask Bill if he could identify which parent's role he was taking from his past, and he realized that he has become both.

His fear of failure, which was dormant for years, was triggered by the economic situation. To make matters worse, the removal of the bonus was seen by him as a symbol. “I see it as the beginning of the end. This is how I am going to become my father”.

The anger that he manifested was his mother, internalized; being angry at the “lousy provider”. Linda then commented that sometimes she feels that his anger is targeting her, and sometimes he directs his anger at himself.

At that point in the session, it seemed like their defenses were down a bit, and I pointed out to them, that inasmuch as they are struggling with real and imaginary fears about the economy, they have also been struggling with the loss of the support and the bond between them, hence they have "no friend to lean on" right now.

Linda then turned to Bill and said that she was afraid as well, but because his emotional state has been so unanticipated and hysterical, she felt that it would not be fair for their children to have two frightened parents.

Bill then turned to me and asked me what to do about his nightmares. He has been afraid to fall asleep, and once he does, he always wakes up in terror. After a nightmare, he gets up, goes to the kitchen and does not go back to bed.

I asked him to write down his dreams, and said that we will look at them the next session. I also reminded them of the physical and emotional consequences of sleep deprivation, commenting on the fact that not allowing someone to sleep is a well known method of torture.

Bill and Linda were surprised to hear from me that research actually indicates that lack of sleep intensifies dreams. Sleep deprivation can also make us less rational, more emotional and annoyed. Linda then disclosed that in the past month she started taking sleeping pills - a fact that she has been hiding from Bill.

Bill's shoulders slumped hearing about Linda’s secret, and said that he always had pride about being the strong one in the family, and now his wife was taking sleeping pills, because she wanted to continue functioning during the day, to be the "solid parent" that she is, while he was behaving "like a baby".

Both of them laughed after I commented that "maybe baby Bill and baby Linda should take a walk in the park and get to know each other in the sand box". They wanted me to elaborate more, but I urged them to think about it and discuss it with each other. I sent them home with the reminder that until I see them next week their goal was to be kind to each other.

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