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.