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Section 14
Compulsive Spending & Marital Problems

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The Negative Dowry
Most adults--67 percent of women, 74 percent of men--enter marriage with at least some debt. Of those with debt, about half owe more than $5,000, primarily from auto loans, credit cards, student loans and debt compulsive spending psychology continuing ed medical bills, research associate David Schramm of Utah State University found in a study of 1,010 newlyweds. This "negative dowry" places a tremendous strain on new marriages at a time when couples would rather be focusing on future financial goals. "It's pretty common to find out that the person you married has more debt and less income than you realized," says Scott Stanley, professor of psychology at the University of Denver and coauthor of You Paid How Much for That? How to Win at Money Without Losing at Love. "Essentially they had other relationships with money going on that you didn't know about. The opportunity to feel betrayed is huge."

Yet the way a couple deals with money disagreements and disappointments can predict the long-term success, or failure, of the relationship. "Money is the intersecting point where couples make most of their decisions," says Stanley, who with colleague Howard Markman conducted a survey of nearly a thousand committed couples across the country. "Money arguments have added potency because they allow for power and control dynamics to be triggered. It's an area of conflict where one partner can make unilateral decisions that affect both partners, sometimes for the rest of their lives."

"If your spouse makes a bad decision, even if you had no knowledge of that decision, when you're married you're treated as one financial entity," Stanley says. Even after a divorce, debt acquired by either party during the marriage is often considered communal responsibility.

Spouses – But Not Partners
Hidden financial dealings not only have legal and long-lasting consequences, they also take a high emotional toll on couples as well. Like all secrets, energy is required to maintain the deception, undermining the most important aspect of a good relationship--the intimacy that comes from letting down one's guard.

There are three important elements of safety in relationships: the ability to talk freely, safety from physical harm and a sense of security about the future, says Stanley. "The last thing in the world you want in a marriage is to feel that you have to protect yourself against your partner, or that you have to wall off a portion of your life. Money is a very potent context in which these forces get acted out."

By hiding information about expensive purchases, risky investments or debts that have accumulated to the point of crisis, he says, relationship land mines are planted that can explode with great force when triggered by outside events (when, say, creditors come calling or the Lexus is repossessed).

Even income secrets are not unusual, observes Barry McCarthy, a psychologist in Washington, D.C., and coauthor--with his wife, Emily--of Getting It Right the First Time: How to Build a Healthy Marriage. People may withhold information about their wages, assets and bonuses.

One husband, for example, claims he makes $120,000, and he and his wife live a fairly modest life. But the man actually makes $400,000 and keeps a separate bank account. He doesn't trust his wife. That's a typical pattern in financial dishonesty, says McCarthy--one spouse commits the "infidelity" but blames the other as the cause.

Should the hidden account be discovered, the partner who was formerly kept in the dark will think the other is hedging his bets and safeguarding individual interests over the couple's interests. "There's a sense that 'maybe you have this separate account in case you want to leave me,'" points out Scott Stanley. "The symbol becomes the problem itself."

In a society with such a high rate of divorce, isn't it prudent to maintain some autonomy and stash some cash? "Americans are so independent and have such easily triggered fears about enmeshment," Stanley reports. "But we've found that couples who operate completely independently financially don't do as well over time."

Stanley and his colleagues recommend that couples view themselves as two separate individuals with a shared third identity: me, you and us. "It's great to have options in life, but in such an affluent society, we are more apt to get into trouble," he says. "Couples must realize that, even when they aren't with their partner, there is still a boundary created by the relationship."

Not all financial infidelity is intentional. "People just fall into it--they don't think deeply about it," says Natalie Jenkins, coauthor of You Paid How Much for That? A lot of people soothe themselves by buying. Perhaps they feel "It's my turn, I deserve this. I'm not getting any younger," or "Rather than resent my partner over not buying this, I'm just going to charge it." Little dishonesties start growing, debts start mounting--and an avenue of intimacy is closed off.

Family therapist Kelly Simpson, director of the Active Relationships Center in Dallas, worked with a couple in which the wife took care of the bills. The woman also racked up $40,000 in debt doing what many women do--taking care of everyone else. Her husband had a strict sense of money's uses. Eventually, she needed to tell him that she was moving balances from one credit card to another. She sought the safety of the therapist's office to disclose the activity.

Just as with sexual affairs, Simpson says, the couple had to rebuild trust. The wife agreed to curtail her spending, go back to work and actively put money into her husband's account. The burden was on the transgressor to demonstrate trustworthiness, which she was able to do by opening the books to show her husband what she was paying and what she was spending.

"It's like President Reagan used to say about his dealings with the former Soviet Union," says Jenkins. "Trust, but verify."

An Open Affair with Wealth
A cigar may be just a cigar--but a checkbook is hardly ever just a checkbook. It's not so much a matter of math as the meaning of money, says Jenkins: power, freedom, escape, pleasure, security, identity, self-discipline, self-indulgence, competition and negotiation. Couples possess two value systems and two sets of needs, and money is a finite resource. Someone has to sacrifice at some point.

Rarely does an American go through a day without earning, spending or dealing with money in some form. Even when people sleep, their money gains interest, loses value and restlessly resides in wallets, IRAs, money markets and bank accounts. Money can be a magnet for all of the highly charged emotions hovering around the space between two people.
And fiscal self-control is more difficult today than in the past, when sidewalk barkers didn't boast "six months same as cash" and "no money down, no payments until 2006." Consumption has been elevated to an art form, complete with megamalls, personal shoppers and stores that sell containers to hold more stuff.

Shopping is an act of affirmation and affiliation, a communal sport, a weekend pastime, an addiction and a designation in DSM-IV, psychiatry's diagnostic directory. In a media-saturated era, money buys both self-fulfillment and social acceptance--a lifestyle in which wants are transformed into needs. We come to believe that we are entitled to what those around us seem to have, and somehow spending $20,000 for a sofa appears perfectly normal.

"Some people are committing financial infidelity by hiding financial misbehavior," says Denver's Stanley. "Others are having an open affair with material wealth. That represents an alternative relationship that is undermining the quality of the marital relationship." The pressure on people to produce and to make money has become enormous. "Those who can do it are so busy doing it that they don't have much time to be in relationships," observes New York psychiatrist John Jacobs.

Seductive as materialism is, it's having a devastating effect on couples. It's creating an epidemic of people who are never satisfied. "Once you're married, if you feel you don't have enough, it's very easy to blame your spouse," says Jacobs, author of All You Need Is Love and Other Lies About Marriage. It's a logical consequence of the romantic belief that a spouse is supposed to complete us.

"Women complain that their husband has failed to provide the kind of support they expected, or that they have to work and don't want to," Jacobs reports. "Men complain that women demand too much of them and aren't carrying their fair share in the relationship. The disappointment drives a wedge between them."

Bait and Switch?
More than 60 percent of wives work outside the home, and both men and women are accommodating to this fact. Surveys show that men are taking on more of the household and parenting chores (although not yet half) and that couples are enjoying the higher standard of living that dual salaries provide. The majority of husbands, in fact, say they wouldn't mind if their wives earned more than they earn (nearly a third of working wives already make more, with another third earning around the same). Some men even admit to evaluating earnings potential in a prospective spouse, a sentiment unthinkable a few generations ago, when a working wife was an aberration, not a value-added proposition.

Outfight economic gender reversal, in which a wife out-earns her spouse substantially, can feel like a very subtle form of fiscal betrayal. Modern couples are the products of thousands of years of socialization that teaches us that it's the man's job to provide and the woman's job to stay home and be cared for and protected. "No matter how much we acknowledge that we want the world to change," Jacobs says, "it's still inside all of us."

If both spouses are perceived as giving what they can to the marriage, earnings may become just a part of a larger whole. But if one person feels that he or she is putting forth all of the effort and bearing all of the responsibility, resentments may fester and the off-kilter relationship is likely to crash.

The Stay-at-Home Bargain
Betrayal can sneak in the patio door if a woman decides to kick her career back a notch after her nurturing instinct is tripped by having a baby. Her husband may feel slighted that their comfortable lifestyle has shrunk to a single set of wages and resentful that his wife has broken an (unstated) marital agreement: the promise of a better lifestyle.

Couples rarely talk about money unless they are already in a fight or are upset about a pending financial problem--hardly the best time for clear discussion of their future.

Full Partnership
Marriage is as much a promise of fiscal partnership as of sexual monogamy. Despite the natural inclination to let money issues remain dormant, dealt with largely through avoidance and denial, the more proactive couples can be about creating a strategic plan and a shared vision of their financial lives, the better.
- Loftus, Mary; Till debt do us part; Psychology Today; Nov/Dec 2004; Vol. 37; Issue 6.
The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.

Personal Reflection Exercise #7
The preceding section contained information about compulsive spending and martial problems.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 14
Which sex is most likely to enter into a marriage with debt? To select and enter your answer go to CEU Answer Booklet.

 

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The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.
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