From the November 2012 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

A House Divided: Help Client Couples Work Together

Red versus blue. Grits versus hash browns. Spend versus save. How to work with couples who are at loggerheads

During the 30-plus years I’ve been counseling couples and teaching them how to resolve conflicts, I’ve identified many ways they tend to polarize around money. For example, Money Avoiders are often married to Worriers, and Money Monks to Amassers.

When opposite money personalities don’t attract right off the bat (and they usually do), they will end up as opposites eventually. This rule of thumb, aka Mellan’s Law, means that if two Spenders enter into a close relationship, they’ll fight each other for the “super-spender” role. The other Spender will gradually take on comparative “saver” characteristics and may eventually come to look like a Money Hoarder. (Someone has to set limits, after all, or the couple will be bankrupt in no time.)

I consider this dance of opposites to be the “power struggle” phase of a relationship. If a couple works toward balance, they may eventually emerge from the struggle and reach what Don Montagna, my old friend and former Ethical Society leader, has called “no-fault love.”

Fortunately, dueling couples can be guided to better alignment and harmony with help from you and a therapist, counselor or coach. To shed light on this challenge, I turned to a couple of experienced financial advisors.

Christine Moriarty, president of MoneyPeace Inc. in Bristol, Vt., is a CFP who is passionate about helping couples get on the same page and move forward together. Rick Kahler, another CFP who is president of Kahler Financial Group in Rapid City, S.D., has established a reputation as a “therapeutic educator” par excellence through his client work, teleclasses and books (including the newest, “Wired for Wealth: Change The Money Mindsets That Keep You Trapped and Unleash Your Wealth Potential”).

How, I asked these two pros, did they handle situations with polarized client couples in their practice?

Scenario 1: Politics

Political polarization leads to money disputes

In this season of often-negative political campaigning, I marvel at couples like James Carville, a Democrat, and Mary Matalin, a Republican, whose ideological differences don’t seem to get in the way of loving and respecting each other. On the other end of the spectrum are a Manhattan couple you may have read about in The Wall Street Journal. When the husband, a Republican, left for an extended business trip abroad a few years ago, he asked his wife, a Democrat, to mail the absentee ballot he had already filled out. “It was a real dilemma,” she later admitted, but decided at last that “the right thing” was to throw his ballot away. (Yes, her spouse found out. He told the Journal that he still hasn’t gotten over it.)

A client couple of Christine Moriarty’s was even more politically polarized. In fact, they had “liberal” and “conservative” sides of the lawn for candidates’ signs. Each of them wanted to donate more to favorite candidates, leading to angst and power plays around how to spend their money.

 “I talked to them about needing to work together,” Moriarty told me. “Though we looked at their whole financial picture, we focused on this bone of contention early in the process.”

She helped take the problem off the table with an inspired solution: “From the money they pooled for expenses, we decided to allocate $60 a month to separate accounts for each of them. That would be the maximum amount of political or charitable donations they could each make without consulting the other spouse.” They also agreed to dedicate another sum of money in their joint account for causes and candidates they could both support.

Along the way, the couple gained a broader awareness of the need to bridge the disagreements dividing them. “Because we were having so many conversations about where they were aligned and what worked for both of them, they began to understand that proclaiming their differences was actually intensifying the conflict,” Moriarty explained. One telling result: They decided to stop posting the two sets of signs in their yard, realizing that it only publicized their dispute and didn’t serve the candidates on either side.

Scenario 2: Sabotage

Unresolved issues sabotage the planning process

Like a pebble in one’s shoe, small events can magnify over time to bring everything to a standstill. Moriarty told me of another couple whose financial planning was stymied because the wife was furious with her husband for buying a vacuum cleaner. “We could not get past that to discuss investments or other plans,” she said, “so even though the vacuum was a month old, we focused on its purchase.”

When the old vacuum broke, the husband had gone out to buy a new one. What infuriated his wife was that he spent $400 on it without consulting her. She agreed it was money well spent since they both liked to buy quality, but the process (or lack thereof) was the issue.

“In the end, we instituted a $100 spend policy,” Moriarty said. “No one spends more than that without consulting the other.” This resolved the problem, allowing the clients to continue their financial strategizing with her.

Couples need to work and make decisions as a team, Moriarty emphasized. Twelve years after this particular couple found resolution, the process is still working for them “because we got to the core issue and created a solution. It wasn’t really about the vacuum cleaner at all.” As a longtime couples therapist, I agree. It’s almost never about the vacuum cleaner.

Scenario 3: Power

Friction arises from issues of togetherness versus autonomy

One of the polarizations I’ve encountered between spouses or unmarried partners is that of different needs for closeness and independence. Moriarty told me about a client who started a plumbing business soon after his marriage. Although his wife had a job of her own, she did the books to help out, then took on more duties as the business grew. When children came along, she finally had to quit her day job to juggle caring for them with handling marketing, ordering and other responsibilities for her husband’s company.

After the last child started high school, she decided to pick up her old career again. Her husband was distraught and angry. This was their business! How could she leave it, especially after the rocky years they’d been having? How would he keep going without her?

In a session with both clients, Moriarty learned that the wife was tired of carrying the weight. The plumbing business was not her dream; it was her husband’s. He never paid attention when she urged him to study the numbers side of running a company. He wouldn’t even learn to use Quicken.

After a great deal of therapy and several meetings with Moriarty, they reached a compromise. The wife would hire and train a new part-time office manager, and every month she and her husband would meet to discuss business issues. He was not allowed to draw her into business matters at other times. He would have to sink or swim on his own.

To his credit, Moriarty said, he took on the steep learning curve. Progress was made. The business survived. Thanks to their therapy, and a caring financial planner who helped them “meet in the middle,” their marriage survived as well.

Scenario 4: Baggage

Old baggage makes money harmony impossible

A high-earning couple who came to Kahler were so dysfunctional around money that they couldn’t even plan ahead to pay their income taxes. The marriage was storybook in every other way; but whenever they tried to focus on their finances, they would disagree so heatedly that the discussion turned into an argument. As a result, they no longer talked about money at all.

“With polarized couples,” Kahler said, “when you hit resistance with any topic, that’s when you’re going too fast.” You need to back up, adopt a “beginner’s mind” that makes no assumptions, and practice what psychotherapist Ted Klontz, Kahler’s coauthor, calls “exquisite listening.”

In this case, Kahler began by using some of the tools in his process to explore the clients’ personal and family money histories. Learning many details of each other’s past for the first time, the husband and wife found they had internalized different “money scripts” while growing up.

“Within two years of starting to work with my team, they both commented that they could now have difficult discussions around money,” Kahler told me. “It took five years altogether, but they’ve succeeded in balancing their budget, saving for 100% of their tax bill, and investing enough from every paycheck for a modest retirement.”

Take note of those relatively long time spans. In a situation like this, it’s often not possible for polarized clients to resolve all their differences and start acting sensibly in just a few sessions. You will need time and patience to help them overcome their old emotional baggage.

Scenario 5: Ignorance

Lack of financial knowledge creates crippling money anxiety

Rick Kahler also worked with a couple who were drastically polarized around the husband’s business debt. The wife was so anxious about it, in fact, that her health and their marital relationship were suffering.

“My analysis indicated that he was a very successful business owner who was taking appropriate risks and making excellent decisions,” Kahler said.

To help the two clients better understand where each of them was coming from, he worked with them to elicit early money memories and their emotional content, and asked the couple to write down their money scripts. “We do the data-gathering first, and then we give these assignments as homework,” he explains. He usually handles the follow-up session in conjunction with a psychotherapist.

Educating the wife about appropriate business risk-taking was a specific challenge. “In my work with them, her anxiety level has fallen substantially,” Kahler told me. “I can explore his decisions in her presence and reframe them for her in a way she understands. They both tell me that every time we meet, her anxiety decreases.”

This is partly due, I believe, to getting a second opinion that everything is OK from someone she trusts. It’s also a result of the manner in which the message was delivered: calmly, patiently and with respect for her feelings.

In this case the husband benefited, too. “Since I’ve started working with them, he has doubled their income and the value of his business,” Kahler said.

What makes Kahler so effective with polarized clients? He said frankly, “It took me $80,000 and 12 years of training to learn how to do a better job as a therapeutic advisor and educator.” He made this investment in therapy to understand his own issues, then used this knowledge to deepen his work with clients.

Final Thoughts

When you’re faced with a couple in conflict, patient and empathetic listening will help each partner feel understood in the other’s presence. If you go on to validate their individual needs, explore their fears and concerns and eventually suggest solutions that allow them to meet in the middle, you will be helping them cross the bridge between their differences so each can compassionately enter the other’s world. As they move closer to harmony with each other, their relationship with you will grow stronger by the day.

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