By Ed Coambs, MBA, MA, MS, CFP®, LMFT, CFT-I™
PACT Level 2 Therapist
Why is couples therapy important for the two of you?
For me, it comes from seeing and experiencing the relational, psychological, and physical pain that comes up around money and relationships.
Early in my marriage, money became an overwhelming source of pain, confusion, anxiety, and distress. Over the course of my life, I have watched and experienced profoundly painful things happen related to money in my family life with nowhere to turn to sort through what this would mean.
There is so much more to each of these story segments and yet they are all related and connected in complex ways to my sense of self, mind, brain, and body. They impact how I interact with my spouse in both conscious and unconscious ways. These memories and experiences are all part of my money and relationship memory system that guides how I think about and experience money and relationships.
Why Is the Intersection of Memory and Money Problematic?
We all have these types of money and relationship memories that are absorbed into our implicit, procedural, and narrative memory, just waiting to guide us when it’s time to make money and relationship decisions. Remember, implicit memories are of how things feel, procedural memories guide our actions, and narrative memories are the stories we tell to make sense of what is happening.
What is it like for you to sit with your partner and review your finances? Part of what guides this money and relationship experience is your shared and different implicit, procedural, and narrative memories.
I initially tried to solve my money problems by becoming a financial planner. But it fell short of helping. I then turned to therapy and became a therapist to try and figure out how to solve painful family and money experiences. A lot was gained, but it also couldn’t resolve the pain around money I experienced or saw in the lives of others.
What is Financial Therapy?
A Google search many years ago led me to the field of financial therapy, which has helped to close the gap between financial planning and counseling. Being in the field of financial therapy has helped bring financial planning and therapy together in meaningful ways to work through the money pain I experience in relationships.
I know each approach to helping people has its strengths and limitations. Like all tools, we need to know what they are good for and what they are not.
The development of financial therapy predates the Financial Therapy Association (FTA) to a number of independent professionals who have looked at the link between psychology and financial well-being.
The FTA, over the last 13 years, has established a professional organization for the study, training, and research of financial therapy. Its goal is to help individuals, couples, and families work with a person's sense of self, thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and relationship dynamics that impair them from developing, maintaining, and experiencing financial well-being.
How Does PACT Help Couples Through Tough Financial Dilemmas?
The PACT model of couples therapy has proven to be a tremendous help along the journey of learning, healing, and growing. It has so much to offer in helping couples navigate their shared life and money reality.
Why is this relevant to you?
Several lines of research cite that money is a top stressor for couples and that money fights have a longer and harsher impact on the well-being of the intimate relationship. Plenty of statistics show that Americans struggle to save enough for their future. This is not to mention the problems that families with money have.
Some empirical evidence and plenty of anecdotal evidence from first-hand conversations and practice with mental health therapists also show that they experience lower levels of financial health than professionals in other occupations. This often leads them to minimize or avoid the topic of money with couples because they can be ineffective at addressing it themselves.
What Is the Role of PACT Therapists?
PACT therapists are equipped with the knowledge, skills, and abilities to help couples create a safe harbor to discuss the role and meaning of money in their lives.
Stop and think about a safe harbor for a minute. Let the image of a calm harbor come to mind. What do you notice happening in your body?
Now imagine this is the place where you get to talk about money with your partner, instead of out on a stormy sea or in the middle of the ocean with no one around.
A safe relational harbor helps the two of you as a couple decide how to move forward with your financial life. It draws on relational safety, creating space for reciprocity and fairness when it comes to your shared financial life together.
PACT therapists are trained to help couples develop a safe harbor. At the same time, they recognize many essential pieces go into a safe harbor. The safe harbor is far more than just having a place to put a boat and tie it up. It is having barriers that prevent the waves from coming in. It has the right amount of spacing for each boat — PACT provides the relational safe harbor.
When working with couples, I invite them to turn and face each other. To notice the safety and acceptance on their partner's face, assuming that is available. Then, each partner is invited to share about their particular financial concern.
Managing Money Together as an Act of Financial Intimacy
Every couple has a need to manage the flow of money through their lives to meet their current needs, midterm needs (1-5 years), and long-term needs, including retirement. At first glance it would seem that money is simple, yet with deeper reflection we realize there are many dimensions to money, including practical, emotional, relational, social, and moral/spiritual, that are unavoidable.
You need to make numerous decisions daily, weekly, monthly, annually, and cumulatively over the life of your relationship, and your financial realities are shaping the decisions you make and don’t make. Learning to get good with money together as a couple is a major developmental task for couples. Each person in the relationship brings a whole history of money experiences, and ideas with associated emotional and moral meanings with them from their families and cultures.
A couple in their early 20s just starting out in their life have many decades to earn, save, and invest. They may be naive about how differently they can view money, but they have time to recover from financial inattention, neglect, and mistakes. A middle-aged couple starts to feel the pull of the aging process, is often navigating multiple kids, the legacy of money decisions made and not made, and a growing recognition that they may want to retire someday. A couple in their late 50s seldom can avoid the realities of the cumulative impact of their life decisions and nondecisions. Couples in the last chapters of life contemplate their legacy and how they will transfer what they have accumulated (or not) and how they will care for themselves.
Over the life of your relationship, the history of your brain development, your ability to manage emotions, and your ability to bond with your partner all color how you approach each life stage and money responsibilities. Your joint approach to money and how you do your relationship together leads to the level of financial intimacy you experience.
Financial Intimacy Is a Process, Not an Event
As a couple, you get to decide how you want to do money together. I am well aware there are many sources of influence on how you see the division of responsibilities when it comes to money in your life.
When you are pursuing financial intimacy as a couple, you don’t deny all the external factors shaping your financial expectations of each other. You acknowledge them and then make decisions about what works best for the two of you as the couple that you are.
There is not one right way to do money as a couple. However, developing a way that works for both of you is essential to experiencing financial intimacy in your life.
What is the financial future you want to create together?