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Divided by Dollars

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

"It's crazy that investment advisers don't have more therapeutic training," says Mellan, who is writing a book on the psychology of money.

Just as opposites attract, Mellan says, men and women tend to marry people who have differing views on spending and saving. That can be helpful -- a conservative saver can help tame an impulsive spender -- but it can also cause conflicts.

"Usually, it comes down to men saying what the money should be used for and women not being given equal time," says Pybrum, author of Money and Marriage: Making It Work Together (Abundance Publishing, $17.95).

Sometimes, the simplest decisions can trip people up. The first question Pybrum hears from couples is whether they should have one checking account or two.

Like many financial advisers, he usually recommends that they have a combination of joint and separate accounts. But there is no one formula that works for everyone; money issues are not settled so easily, he says.

"If you don't pool your resources, does that mean you're holding back?" Jenkins says her clients often wonder. "It's just not an either / or situation. How much to put in the pot together is up to the individual couple."

Experts recommend that couples follow a strategy similar to what the Patrases followed -- get professional advice when necessary and learn to talk about these issues thoroughly. That includes exploring the hidden issues that may be involved.

Active listening

To do that, therapists generally suggest some form of active listening, which requires one person to restate what their partner is telling them. Such a process can slow conversation, but it promotes greater empathy and understanding.

When fights do break out, husbands and wives need to respect the golden rule of relationships: Avoid being hurtful to each other, says Susan Townsend, a Towson psychologist. When tempers flare, it's even all right to set the conflict aside for a little while, as long as both people agree to try to talk again later.

"That's not a recipe for avoidance, it's an effort to avoid con-tamination," says Jenkins. "We can decide not to talk about this for a month or maybe just Wednesdays at 7. You have to find ways to handle the emotions."

Couples also need to set realistic financial goals and follow budgets. That may sound boring, but both can prevent conflicts before they happen.

Tom and Susan Patras created a budget before they got married. They wanted to make sure they could afford the mortgage payment on their townhouse on one salary in case Susan had to go on maternity leave in the future.

Lucky, they did. Tom was laid off from one job, and resigned from a second. He's now happily employed as director of development for the Helping Up Mission in downtown Baltimore, but he was without a regular paycheck for five months.

"We were able to cut back. We never incurred debt," recalls Susan. "I think we handled it pretty well."

Tom agrees. He says that their similar views on money have kept them from having any major battles over the family's finances. Neither feels the "need to be wealthy."

"We're on the same page. That makes all the difference in the world," says Tom.

It's not always financial

When fights over finances start to rage out of control, it's often because the arguments aren't really about money but some underlying issue.

How do you know when there's a hidden problem? Author Natalie H. Jenkins says these are the four common indicators:

* Wheel-spinning. When couples argue back and forth repeatedly without getting anywhere, it's a pretty safe bet that something else is involved.

* Trivial triggers. When small things get blown out of proportion -- like an unbalanced checkbook -- it might suggest that issues of power or caring are at its core, not just a bounced check.

* Avoidance. Are certain aspects of your finances considered off-limits for conversation? Maybe this is more about a fear of rejection.

* Scorekeeping. When a husband or wife starts keeping a mental list of every money-related wrong that their partner has perpetrated, chances are something else is going on. Maybe someone is feeling controlled.

Jenkins say addressing hidden issues isn't always easy -- first, you have to discover what they are; then you must learn how to talk about them without hurting each other's feelings. Couples who can do that, she says, will inevitably be drawn closer together.

Meeting in the middle

Still uncertain whether you and your spouse can talk? Therapist and money coach Olivia Mellan (www.moneyharmony.com) recommends these techniques:

1. Acknowledge the other person's style and what you admire about their dealings with money. Goodwill always helps a marriage.

2. Practice doing things that don't come naturally. Spenders should try being the one who does most of the saving and vice versa for a while.

3. Reward your progress, in a way that doesn't impede progress.

4. Write down how it feels to be different in a personal journal. Following a budget didn't hurt, did it?

5. Find a safe place to talk. No, not in a bank vault. Try talking with empathy, reflecting what the other person says, and honestly negotiating through obstacles.

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