An individual or both partners in the couple often brings complaints about money into therapy. The most common complaint probably is of one partner spending too much and the other partner being too cheap. The actual financial situation of the couple or family may be relevant as may be expected with poor, student, or low working class couples. However many times the couple may have relatively stable or affluent economic income and resources. Bob and Dorothy were both well-compensated educated forty-something professionals that saved over $50000 a year while maintaining their suburban lifestyle. Theodore was an eighty-year-old who had been widowed and retired several years earlier, and remarried taking Mandy (in her mid-sixties) as his second wife. He had been a hugely successful businessperson and set aside millions of dollars in trust funds for all his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, as well as trusts, property, investments, and bank accounts to more than accommodate him and Mandy's any need. Harumi and Terrell who were in their mid-thirties, had met in college while playing sports. She had advanced in career as a financial analyst and was now a manager of a major company who had decent career prospects. He had attempted to make it in professional sports- a basketball point guard but had not been able to have more than a journeyman career. Terrell was now trying some real estate work, but was at best still a journeyman.
All three of these couples were at least financially stable if not affluent, yet money was a core conflict between partners. The therapist will often find that "the accumulation and expenditure of money is often a point of contention within many couples, based on the partners' experiences acquired from their families of origin. Some families believe that money is something that should be saved and spent only when absolutely necessary. In this respect, strong ethics and values center on living a frugal life and saving for the future. On the other hand, other families may view money as a tool and as something that should be spent in the here and now. In those families, the expenditure of money is not seen as negative, and there may be less accountability as to how it should be spent. When two spouses have been raised in families that were very different in their philosophies with regard to finances, serious conflict may ensue. An individual who came from a family of origin that stressed the need to save money may feel secure in knowing that certain monies are set aside and may have that sense of security shaken if a partner places a different value on its use. On the other hand, a partner who comes from a family of origin that stressed a 'you can't take it with you' philosophy may feel stifled by a fiscally conservative spouse. The situation may be compounded when the couple's parents still have a significant influence on how they should spend money in their marriage" (Dattalio, 2006, page 361-62).
Both Bob and Dorothy came to the United States as either a young child or a pre-teen with their families. Each of their families struggled to get established economically as immigrants. Bob's family was able to start a small restaurant. Bob was the classic kitchen help, bus boy, dishwasher, waiter, and eventual assistant manager of the ethnic immigrant family restaurant. He did his homework in the afternoons on the restaurant counter before the dinner rush. Eventually, he got tips from the customers, but the tips along with everything else went into the family pot. Business was unstable. When a government office that provided most of their clientele nearby closed, they almost went out of business. Bob's parents depended on the family workforce and a lot of American school and recreational activities were out of the question both financially and time wise. Money, which was always short in Bob's family became about security. Not having money was insecurity, and thus spending money became about losing security. His relatively abundant professional income still had to do with security. To Bob, spending money threatened his and the family's (meaning him and Dorothy and their children) hard fought for family security.
Dorothy's family on the surface did not seem that much different from Bob's family. The family had a corner grocery store that had some very good years, some good years, and an occasional OK or bad year. Overall, with hard work and conservative investments and savings, they did fairly well. Dorothy however could never tell if they were doing well or not. If she or her siblings wanted anything that cost money, they would be chided for being selfish and wasteful. Her parents had been through civil war in the homeland where there had been some very bleak times. As a result, they were always financially and materially restrictive "just in case." Although the family was actually fairly financially solvent for most of her childhood, there seemed to be no rewards for working hard. When Dorothy finally figured out in her teens that their sense of poverty was not reflected in their bank accounts, her sense of deprivation got triggered. She asked, "What was the point of making money if one was not rewarded for all the hard work?" This premise carried forth into her adult sense of money. Spending a little on herself, the kids, the household, and the family made all the sense in the world to her. Bob's complaints about her spending made her feel scolded and deprived as she had felt as a girl in her family. Bob and Dorothy's money conflicts were a perfect storm of mismatched scripts.
Mandy could not believe that she and Theodore with all his millions in savings, investments, and trusts still drove a car with duct tape holding the back seat door closed. She had her own car and had her own money from her first marriage as well, but nothing like Theodore's riches. But when they went out together, they drove his duct-taped car. It embarrassed her to be riding in a "beater" when they associated with the opera socialites… when they went to the grocery store! Younger than Theodore by fifteen years, Mandy's formative years were post World War II during a time of nationwide economic prosperity. Her family was working class with middle-class income that made just enough money to keep up with the proverbial "Jones." She didn't have to be decked out in diamonds and fur, but she did not like to look like "trailer trash" either. Theodore would not spend the money to fix the car. "It ran fine," he justified. He had money enough to buy a new car dozens of time over for everyone in his family down through four generations. If fact, he bought cars for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren for graduation presents. For himself and as a result, for Mandy however he had a different perspective. Theodore was a pre-teen and teenager during the Great Depression, which functionally lasted for many people until World War II. He literally sold pencils and apples on the street corner to support his family. Joining the Army and getting a college degree with the GI bill gave him the opportunity that took him out of poverty. Decades of hard work and frugality embedded his psyche with values and behaviors that proved aggravating to his second wife Mandy. His money script was so compelling, he could not adapt it to his spousal scripts of support and sensitivity, much less to reality. Mandy could identify her "looking good" script and also have compassion for Theodore's Great Depression influenced frugality scripts, but nevertheless she felt that he betrayed her expectations to be treated with respect and consideration. Duct tape!
By most accounts, Harumi and Terrell lived a decent or okay working class lifestyle. While they were not the social and financial "beautiful people," they paid their bills, lived within their means, and had not acquired a lot of debt. However, Terrell had great difficulty reconciling that Harumi made more money than he did. And, had a more prestigious job and career with ample opportunities for further advancement- maybe, a career in politics. He was used to being the "point guard" of the team- the leader and star. The financial scorecard was also a scorecard of worth to him, and he was "losing." Harumi had never considered her career as anything but a family/couple's plan. She had supported his athletic career as part of their joint vision. When anyone in the family did well, her Japanese-American family values shared the glory and status with everyone in the family. Terrell's values were more individualistic reflecting American cultural male standards and athletic standards. His "stats"- that is, his income made him feel second-string. Harumi had not known how much this bothered Terrell. She thought he was happy that she did well, meaning the family was doing well and advancing. She only discovered Terrell's insecurity when they came to couple therapy after she discovered his affair. Financial difficulties create stress for most relationships, however money scripts may only be superficially related to money. They may be scripts about security or reward, frugality or class, worth or family, power and control, advance or regression, and many other possibilities. Such variations in core meanings can also be relevant when sex, communication, children, vacations, and any other relationship issue becomes heated. Important concerns get manifested between two people over things that can be clearly provocative to seemingly insignificant. In many cases, the therapist has to peel back the layers to uncover the key symbolisms.