Divided by Dollars

Arguments over financial woes can take a heavy toll on a marriage

September 29, 2002|By Peter Jensen | By Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Tom and Susan Patras of White Marsh can name three things that make their marriage work: love, faith, and a healthy fear of money.

It's not money that has them worried exactly. It's the way arguing over it can damage a relationship. They've seen it in many other couples.

So before they wed 18 months ago, they underwent premarital counseling and talked about how they'd handle their joint finances -- and they still make a point to talk through all major decisions involving spending, investing, and paying the bills.

"I think we've prevented a lot of issues from becoming problems," says Susan, 34, a special education teacher at Pinewood Elementary School in Timonium. "We do a tremendous amount of communicating."

In this time of economic uncertainty and nose-diving 401k accounts, the Patrases had every reason to be concerned. Money is at the root of more conflicts in marriages than any other topic and it doesn't seem to matter whether the couple is rich, poor, recently married or headed toward their golden years.

Nearly 40 percent of couples say money is the No. 1 thing they argue about, according to one University of Denver survey. Children came in a distant second followed by careers, in-laws and chores.

"I'd say 85 percent of couples can't sit down in the comfort of their own home, look into each other's eyes and talk about money without breaking into a fight," says Steven Pybrum, a Santa Barbara, Calif., financial planner.

Pybrum and other financial consultants say the recent downtown in the U.S. economy and the stock market has only made matters worse. Husbands may find themselves held accountable: "Why did you sink our money into that?"

"There's no doubt there's more conflict right now," says Olivia Mellan, a Washington-based couples therapist and money coach. "When times are stressful, we tend to revert to our most dysfunctional mode of communicating. It's never the adult, rational mode. The tendency is just to blame one another."

David L. Berman, a financial planner in Timonium, says an economic recovery doesn't necessarily improve matters either. In 1999, when technology stocks were peaking, couples would sit in his office and argue over why they weren't getting rich.

"I was a psychology major in college," says Berman. "It turned out to be the best thing I ever did. There's a lot of 'I told you so' going around."

Even couples who think they won't have a problem with money can run into difficulties. Brandy and Lara Thomas met while both were studying for their MBAs at Stanford University. They have a sophisticated understanding of money, and matters of investment and personal finance were rarely an issue for them during nine years of marriage.

But a few years ago, Brandy decided he wanted to move from Arlington, Va. to a much more expensive home in nearby McLean. His wife was dead-set against spending so much money. They argued and argued for months about that one decision.

"We discussed this every way possible and daily," recalls Brandy, 34, an internet entrepreneur who eventually persuaded his wife to buy. "It was something I always wanted. But she liked stability. Moving for her was a hard thing."

Experts say the Thomases' conflict was a classic example of why money becomes a problem -- it's not about money per se but about the hidden issues behind it. Feelings about security, power, control, self-esteem and freedom are often tied to money.

The side issues

"If a couple is having the same argument over and over again, that's a clue it's not about the money," says Natalie Jenkins, co-author of You Paid How Much for That?! How to Win at Money Without Losing at Love (Jossey-Bass, $19.95). "Or when the subject is little but the emotion is big, then money is not the real issue either."

She remembers counseling a couple over life insurance. The husband, a physician, said it was a poor investment. His wife was outraged. She thought it was a sign he didn't care. Eventually, it became clear he just didn't want to discuss insurance because he didn't want to contemplate his own death.

Jenkins says there's no shortage of potential conflicts like that. One person may be a saver by nature, another a spender. A husband might think making financial decisions is his job while his wife may feel she's being marginalized.

"The roles aren't as defined for men and women as they used to be," she notes. "Women want to take a more active role. There's more potential for friction."

Nor has it helped that modern life seems to involve more financial choices than ever before. Gone are the days of guaranteed pensions and putting your savings in the bank, replaced by 401ks, brokerage accounts and financial planners.

Yet as often as couples seek out financial planners, that doesn't necessarily help them learn to make decisions. The average planner isn't a marital counselor and won't necessarily understand the underlying points of view.

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