by Judy Barber
Every family has its own way of relating to money, and in many families the issue of money can be tricky. For some families there is chronic tension and disagreement; for others, a sense of singular purpose and unanimity. Whether your childhood experiences were positive or negative, one thing is certain. The way money was handled in one's childhood has a powerful effect upon how you relate to money and all its complex issues in adulthood.
When I first met Harville Hendrix (see this issue's interview) I was struck by the importance of his message - that in our most intimate relationships as adults we often re-play the issues we had with the parent with whom we had the greatest difficulty.
And, in fact, the rewards of a long-term relationship come from working those conflicts through with our partner. Then we can have an intimate connection that is both safe and satisfying.
But issues intensify when money is involved. How can a couple that regularly argues about money take a clear-eyed view of how one's parents' attitudes have affected one's own? Looking back often elicits painful experiences. Yet in spite of the difficulty, it is the reluctance to look at those past interactions with our parents that keeps us static and unable to change our behavior.
Let me give you an example. Ted and Ellen have been married for fifteen years and have two children in their early teens. They are considering a separation, largely because of the lack of resolution regarding the emotional and financial inequities in their marriage. The pre-nuptial agreement they signed because of Ellen's substantial wealth triggered issues that continue to be unresolved.
The separate property agreement seemed fine at the time of their marriage. Ted, an engineer by training, had his own small computer software company. He figured he would make enough money to make a major contribution to the joint expenses, which is important for him. He also believed that he would be able to save enough for his own nest egg. He felt protective of Ellen and wanted to reassure her that he would carry his own weight. He also knew that Ellen would share her wealth generously to create a comfortable lifestyle for both of them.
From Ted's perspective, this arrangement seemed workable at the time. He could support the family emotionally and at the same time maintain his autonomy. He and Ellen were committed to raising their children together. After the birth of their second child, however, he realized he couldn't build a business and be responsible for half of the child care. He now says, "I knew my earning power was diminished, at least for the time. I worried about my ability to contribute to the joint expenses and create my own nest egg." But he never brought it up directly. "I didn't say, 'I don't think I can do this, it's not realistic.' I wasn't honest with myself, nor with Ellen."
Since the birth of their second child, Ellen's frustration with the arrangement has been the inconsistency of Ted's behavior. He says he will be available for the family when often he cancels to work on a project, disappearing for days into his office. Ellen thought he would be committed to part-time parenting so she could continue her non-profit work that is vital to her sense of well-being.
At various times Ellen has talked about gifting assets to Ted - a recommendation supported by the estate planner - but it is a sensitive issue and she hasn't followed through.
Ellen believes that if Ted wants to create his own nest egg through work, and if he insists on working the long hours, then he should be able to earn his own way. She would be willing to contribute to his financial independence only if he would commit to working less. The message he gets is that "You can't have it both ways. You can't spend sixty hours a week working while leaving me virtually to raise the kids while you continue to be financially dependent."
This attitude has always made sense to Ted. "I believed she was right, but I haven't been able to work less. I simply haven't been able to talk about it. I want to please Ellen, but I worry about how I can continue to contribute and at the same time have some of my own money to invest."
They are at a stalemate. Like many couples, because of their busy lives, Ellen and Ted spend little time trying to figure out the root of their current emotional and financial crisis.
Before finding a solution, both of them need to learn more about each other's family money style by asking how each of their parents dealt with money, whether it was used as a reward, and if so, how they were affected when money was given conditionally.
By answering these questions frankly Ellen and Ted can begin to reveal experiences from their families that may have contributed to their inability to talk to each other in the past.
Ellen's father routinely chose work over the family. It seemed to her the most important thing in his life was making money, and he left a trail of broken promises. The affluent life style they lived never made up for his absence. Without realizing it, her dad's drive to make money had left her unable to see how Ted struggles to find balance between work and family.
As a child, Ted believed his parents had tried to use the money to mold him into someone that he wasn't. For example, Ted's parents offered him a new car if he would agree to drop out of his small, progressive college and enroll in the more prestigious State University. He passed on their offer and hadn't thought about it for years.
In sharing these experiences with each other, Ted began to understand how being vague and non-committal about being with the family touched off Ellen's old feelings about not being important to him as she had felt unimportant to her father. Ellen realized that by not working with Ted to resolve the issue of creating his own net worth, she, like his parents in the past, made him feel that her love and money were conditional.
By being sensitive to the impact of these past family experiences, Ted and Ellen are working things out. They are each committed to resolving these issues by working out a formula which balances Ted's need to create his own financial autonomy and Ellen's need to have him fully participate in their family life.
Interview with Harville Hendrix of Imago Institute
Harville Hendrix is a New York Times best-selling author of Getting the Love You Want: A Guide For Couples and Keeping the Love You Find: A Personal Guide for singles. He and his wife Helen Hunt are co-founders of the Institute for Relationship Therapy and co-authors of Giving the Love That Heals: A Guide for Parents. (Harville can be reached at imagotherapy.com.)
I met Harville last summer on Cape Cod while attending one of his weeklong professional workshops. I was immediately struck by the depth of his of his experience, his practical approach and his simple methods that have helped thousands of couples cope with disappointing relationships. Hendrix's central hypothesis of Imago therapy is that painful child-hood experiences and frustrations can infect relationships unless old wounds are made conscious. It is only after old wounds are addressed that couples can deepen their commitment to one another and create a lasting source of love and companionship.
Even in a marriage where all assets are shared equally, money management is a sensitive and complex subject. But in marriages where the assets are separate through the signing of a pre-nuptial agreement, defining what is equitable can be so touchy that some couples may not broach the subject. Family Money has asked Harville Hendrix to discuss some of the issues in the context of his own work.
FM - Harville, what does it mean to be equal partners in the context of economic disparity?
HH - The way that I have thought about that for myself and for others is really simple - each according to his ability. On a practical level, there is a need to somehow work out a financial formula. If you have $500,000 a year coming in and I have $100,000 a year coming in, my $100,000 is equal to your $500,000 . . . We work out our budget and my contribution to the family pot is one fifth. But here's where it gets complicated, because if it's a big budget, one fifth of the budget is too much for the $100,000 person. Couples work out different formulas based on a contribution based on their abilities. Sometimes the disparity is such that I could contribute 10% of mine and that would be $10,000, and the other $490,000 is only 10% of your gross - something like that. You have to work out a financial formula by which what you contribute to a joint account is equal to what the other person contributes, even if the actual numbers are greatly in disparity. Does that make sense?
FM - It does make sense but the formula is complicated. For example, how can the person both make a contribution to the financial pot, create his or her own financial autonomy.
HH - I can see that is a real problem. I would imagine that would produce about as much conflict as most other bad solutions would do. And when there is separate property, the person with less money who cannot build their own equity is constantly dependent, vulnerable and never feels empowered.
FM - What are the vulnerabilities and behind that the power struggles?
HH - The person with the money can then exercise the power to make decisions about how the money is used. There's always the temptation for that person to say "no we won't buy a Mercedes Benz" or "no, we won't take that trip." There has to be agreement and accountability to each other. The 10% of the $100,000 I contribute to the family budget is equal. - Then I build my own equity because the other $90,000 is mine to invest as I choose. I pay my taxes on it, I put $10,000 into the family budget, then the rest is mine. Then I have $80,000 or $90,000 to work with. But if there is a sense of "I have my own financial resources, but I'm using most of my money to live in this context that I couldn't afford on my own and the other person can say 'no' to what I want" then it's not equitable.
FM - What are your thoughts about someone who has little or no earning power or it is the desire of both partners that he or she not work for money. A situation where the person with more money is saying "Gee, it would be great if you didn't work. I'd love for you to take care of the household" or "I'd like you to help me with my investments."
HH - There needs to be a lot of psychological work done on surrendering "mine" and "yours" for "ours." That's a growth thing. But the person with the money and the person without the money both need to have a sense of ownership of the money. There's a bowl over there, and the bowl is what it costs to live. "I can't put anything in it, and you put it all in but it's ours, and we mutually decide how to spend it." That still leaves one person without private wealth. Somehow there has to be an understanding: the house is in both of their names; the cars are in both of their names, certain properties are in both of their names, so that there's a joint ownership of some of the income-producing resources. I would think that, makes a pre-nuptial necessary because if there's a divorce, there's an understanding ahead of time about what percentage of the income will go to the person to maintain the standard of living that they had during the marriage.
FM - How can a couple move from an unconscious marriage which often brings frustration and fear from childhood to a conscious marriage where they can work together around the money.
HH - The unconscious marriage carries with it a lot of unconscious assumptions about resources. How much there is? How much am I entitled to? What do I want to to do? What's expected of me? All of that would come to the fore as the source of conflict as people talk about the specific issue of money. Sometimes there is an unconscious wish for dependence.
FM - Do you mean wanting to be emotionally and financially dependent without ever saying it.
HH - Yes the unconscious expectation that I'm taken care of or the unconscious expectation that I have to take care of other people, but I resent it. All of that would have to be a part of the dialogue so that those assumptions would come into consciousness. People could then move to some sort of shared vision about how they were going to deal with (a) those assumptions and (b) with the reality of making decisions about the distribution of the wealth.
FM - What is rarely articulated are the fears the person with the assets has about the mix of love and money.
HH - Do you love me? Are you marrying me because of my money? And the person who doesn't have the money has to face that question, that is, "What factor of the resources is a part of the decision to marry?" It's OK to say that it was there, but what's not OK is to say it isn't there when it is. Then there's an inauthenticity that makes the conversations crazy.
FM - It's a huge taboo for someone to say, "Yes, part of my attraction to you is the security and lifestyle you can provide me". I sometimes hear a kidding comment like "I really like it that you have money, and I'll help you spend it." And the seriousness to come back is "That's part of what I'm worried about is that you're going to want to spend my money your way instead of my way or my money, or our way."
HH - And then that puts another bind on. It's then hard for the person with money to hear that the person without would like to spend some of it his or her way, and would that be all right? Because that person with the money will be spending it his way or her way because he or she has the power to do so.
FM - Often in conversations, the person with the money will say without rancor, "Well I know there's a certain amount of money that I want to continue to spend the way I want to" and the other person is says, "I know but I can't do that. What does that mean for me? I'm not in a position to do that."
HH - In that situation, The practical solution is that each person has a personal allowance. There's a certain amount of this budget of $500,000 a year that I will take out as my allowance, whether it is $50 a week or $1,000 a month.
FM - How do childhood wounds relate to concerns both partners have? The person with money may fear being taken advantage of, and the person with fewer resources fears a lack of influence over use of the resources. Is there a way that people can expose those concerns?
HH - Yes. Having a dialogue about what it was like for them to grow up as a child in their family is an important process. Then each person can ask, "What do I need now as an adult in relationship to you around money in order not to have that childhood experience gain?"
FM - So, how do you make these conversations safe?
HH - Like anything else in the relationship - money, sex, time, family chores, etc., the question is Can I count on you? Will you do your share? Will you be there for me? All of the childhood wishes have to somehow be concretized in the areas of practicality. If you say, ""I'll take care of the groceries," will you do that? Can I come home and find the groceries have been bought? Reliability is a big indicator. Trust is a big issue.
FM - So when things change, couples need to talk about what it means, even if it is difficult?
HH - Yes, couples in a conscious marriage continually need to revise their relationship in connection to the realities that exist at the time. If they don't dialogue about this kind of issue, then the one with the money begins to feel taken advantage of because there's been no upgrading of the other ways that reliability can be done. Like, "I can't put in the money this month, and what I would like to do is something non-financial for you - something that you want, like giving you four mornings a week to sleep-in . . . or I'll take care of the children more, or I'll do something else non-financial, that we can agree makes that equal to the $10,000."
FM - So what happens if they don't keep the dialogue going?
HH - The old patterns just get rigid again. But if there is dialogue, I can say,
"I really feel bad about not getting enough sales today and I want you to know that and make it up to you." If the dialogue continues and there's enough safety, then those vulnerable feelings can come out. If the dialogue doesn't continue, then the defenses go up, and then the conflict comes. Again, it's all about staying connected.
FM - Can you say more about the connection?
HH - We need the sense that we're safe with and in some sense share some common realities as well as separate realities, and that we can relate to each other without defenses. There's a kind of flow of energy back and forth that feels like a "we." That connection can be ruptured at any moment with a defense, like, "But you didn't do that." or a change in the subject or a distraction ruptures the connection. Any number of unconscious things. As soon as the plug comes out, the connection is broken, and then the only place you go is to your defense. But the yearning behind all of that is for connection.
FM - In Imago terms, the "intentional dialogue" is the core of being able to maintain connection. Can you explain what that is?
HH - It's basically the three parts: First, make an appointment with each other. Then practice the following three techniques:
• Mirroring - Reflecting exactly what you heard, no interpretation or different language. "If I heard you correctly…" "Is that right?" "Is there more about that?"
• Validation - "You make sense, because…" You do not have to agree to validate what your partner said.
• Empathy - "I imagine you might be feeling…" Use single feeling words - sad, hurt, anxious, misunderstood, etc.) Check "Is this right?"*
Once the three-step process is completed, the roles are reversed.
This process is repeated until there is a clear connection between the two of them, each feeling empathy for the other. This places responsibility on the sender to send the message in such a way that the receiver is not confronted, criticized or demeaned.
FM - So the message is "I want you to know that it's my intention to keep you safe, even though I'm expressing a frustration."
HH - That's right. That is the paramount thing, is to remember safety. If I don't feel safe I am going to be defensive, not because I want to, but even though I may not express any defenses, I will feel it inside. My old brain has only one reaction to danger, and that's to defend it in whatever way - flight, fight, or submit.
[The intentional dialogue] helps to remind the couple that what's important here is that they stay connected so that the frustration can be dealt with and resolved in a way that touches each one's childhood wounds and doesn't become a source for further disconnection.
FM - And these issues of financial equity in a marriage create such vulnerability.
HH - Yes, it's because money is connected to survival. . somehow the self and the resources get fused.
FM - Harville, thank you for your wisdom and insight regarding this difficult topic.
HH - Well, you're welcome. And I appreciate the opportunity to think about this out loud.
* Condensed Intentional Dialogue courtesy of K. Dale Bailey, Th.D.
by John L. Levy's, For Richer or Poorer
It helps in a marriage which is fiscally unequal if both partners recognize that it's essentially inevitable that both will at times feel uncomfortable concerning ways the money is spent, how it's invested, who pays for what, how much is saved, and how it will be passed on after death. They need to accept that such feelings are quite normal and don't mean they're selfish, greedy or lazy.
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