The last thing in the world I would ever want to be is a couples therapist. This is despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that for 40 years most of my work as a financial planner has been with couples.
Helping individuals negotiate their relationship with money requires patience, skill, and wisdom. Helping a couple negotiate their relationship with money, and inevitably with each other, takes courage as well.
When a couple in my office gets into a disagreement around money and their voices escalate, a part of me hides under the largest available piece of furniture. My body may remain present, but everything else has left the building.
In order to expand my toolbox, I recently completed a class designed for couples therapists. The class, while valuable, has not transformed me overnight into a couples therapist. While I do some limited financial therapy with individuals, I have never done financial therapy with couples. Doing financial therapy with a couple requires extensive training to help them work through deep relationship issues. Doing financial planning with couples may make use of therapeutic skills to listen, help them explore their individual and joint money histories, focus on what’s happening within them rather than on their partner, and facilitate courageous conversations.
For couples, it’s important to have regular money talks—before a financial crisis hits. Yet many couples can’t talk about money in a functional and helpful way. Each partner’s emotions, stories, and histories get in the way. Over 80% of all financial decisions are made emotionally. Couples’ money issues are rarely about the money, but are usually about underlying emotions, financial traumas, and beliefs they are often unaware of. Once these are out on the table and resolved, couples can really talk about the money.
There are almost always ways to make things work financially between a couple. Sometimes a skilled financial planner has enough tools to accomplish this. Sometimes financial therapy is necessary. Fortunately, there are financial therapists that specialize in couples.
When might a couple seek out the help of a financial therapist versus a financial planner? A September 2017 article in Psychology Today, “Should You Go to Couples Therapy?”, by clinical psychologist Andrea Bonior Ph.D., has a helpful list of reasons that I’ve adapted to financial therapy.
- Broken trust. A common reason for seeking couples financial therapy is financial infidelity, where one or both of the spouses are keeping secrets, deceiving, or lying to one another around earning, spending, saving, giving, receiving, or loaning money.
- Increasing frequency of arguments around money.
- Poor communication around money.
- Discomfort or unease. You may have a feeling that something is wrong with the role of money in your relationship, but not be able to pinpoint the problem.
- You need to talk with your partner about a money-related issue but haven’t been able to. This often goes hand in hand with financial infidelity.
- The two of you don’t handle conflict well. You may react in dysfunctional ways like shutting down, lashing out, or becoming manipulative.
- Your relationship has been affected by a devastating financial event.
- You feel stuck in bad financial patterns.
- Financial problems are damaging your emotional intimacy.
If any of these issues are present in your relationship, it may be wise to reach out to a couples financial therapist, sooner rather than later. Waiting until you are in a crisis will only prolong and deepen the pain. Seeking the help of a financial therapist won’t be the easiest decision you’ll ever make. Yet it could be one of the best financial and emotional investments you and your partner will ever make.