Money is not just the root of all evil, money is also one of the leading causes of spats between spouses. Finances, in fact, were found to be the leading cause of stress in relationships among people between the ages of 44 and 54, according to a survey by SunTrust Bank.1
A 2015 study by the American Psychological Association also found that three-quarters of Americans experience financial stress at least some of the time, with more than a quarter of the population feeling extreme financial stress most or all of the time.2 (Finances have topped that annual stress survey since 2007.)
The causes of that stress vary from couple to couple and person to person, but the effects are often the same on a marriage or relationship: protracted arguments about money management and unease at whether the couple will be prepared for their financial future.
Smart couples know to seek help, but what's the best sort of expert? A traditional financial professional probably can't help with the marital issues, while a couples counselor isn't likely to help you put together a financial plan. Financial therapy, which blends treatment components from the mental health fields with the techniques of financial planning professionals, might be the middle ground you're looking for.
"A lot of people say 'just pay your bills,'" says Mary Bell Carlson, PhD., a financial therapist with Silverbell Solutions in Centreville, Virginia. "A financial counselor might say 'Oh, I'll set up a payment schedule or an investment plan.' But what the client is not telling you is (that) this is a symptom of a much deeper problem — and typically financial counselors are not trained for that."
Emotions in money issues
Indeed, financial planners say they spend approximately 25 percent of their time dealing with non-financial issues, such as marital distress, while roughly one-third of the couples in marital therapy bring up financial stress or problems.3
Still confused? The best way to wrap your brain around financial therapy is to look at it as a practice that helps you change your financial behaviors. But it can also open parties up to exploring other factors that cause discord. Often, said Carlson, money issues that arise in a marriage or partnership are just the canary in the coal mine.
The focus of the therapy, though, is typically on money management, not relationships. So if larger trust issues or something like a confession of infidelity comes up during a session, a financial therapist is only part of the solution.
"You have to know when your skill set is done and when you start getting into the world of becoming a marriage and family therapist," said Carlson. "That's when I have to stop and say 'This is not my realm and I would encourage you to go to a professional'. So a lot of times, I refer couples out to couples- or individual therapy."
It's a fairly new type of practice. The Financial Therapy Association, a professional organization for this sort of specialty, was only formed in 2009, after 27 providers attended a one-day forum on building a bridge between financial planners and counselors and clinically trained therapists.4
It's catching on in places, though. For instance, Kansas State University now offers a graduate certificate program in financial therapy, which focuses on improving clients' financial health by integrating relational, behavioral, cognitive and emotional elements into personal finance planning.
One professional ... Or two experts?
Because the field is so new, though, there's a lot of uncertainty on exactly what it means to be a financial therapist. While some in the profession think it's possible to assume the role of both financial advisor and counselor, others aren't so sure.
Richard Kahler, founder of Kahler Financial Group, is a traditional financial professional, but he's a big believer in financial therapy. However, he says, rather than trying to master two complicated professions, he prefers to work alongside a licensed traditional therapist with a client, so that client can truly have the best of both worlds.
"Can one person play both roles?" he asked rhetorically in an interview. "The answer is, it depends. The idea of putting the two professionals together probably is the best solution. Most therapists use the right side of their brain and it's painful being in the numbers world. The opposite is true of financial planners. Finding one person who can hold competency in both arenas is really hard ... You want both of them to have training in the other area, but you want them to be playing to their strengths." (Related: Two types of financial professional)
Kahler says he's currently working in tandem with a licensed therapist in a case involving a mother and a daughter. The therapist discusses the emotional end of the financial issues and money management problems. He works with the mother to help put together a plan. And they speak jointly with the mother or daughter — or the pair together — to ensure the emotional and financial issues are resolved.
Indeed, given the relative paucity of financial therapists to the money management industry at large, it is likely that consumers are more likely to encounter financial professionals that work with or suggest using a particular therapist should there be a need for a financial therapy type of approach. And, as the concept spreads, it may be an avenue more and more financial professionals suggest over the course of time.
Before seeking financial therapy…
There are a few things to know about financial therapists before you decide to see one, though.
First, it's important to realize the confidentiality standards generally may not be the same as with traditional psychological therapists. And so far there isn't a formal ethical framework for financial therapists (though they are bound by the code of ethics of their respective professional organizations). It's also important to clarify the scope of service before you get started, so you know exactly what sort of results can be achieved.
Also, expect a bit of homework after each session — which could mean everything from putting together income and expense statements to taking financial risk assessments to thinking about how money affects your financial behaviors and interactions with others. And, of course, you're going to have to talk about money openly — something not everyone is comfortable doing.
From there, the financial therapist (or the team of a financial professional working in conjunction with a therapist) will work with you to come up with suggestions that relieve not only the financial strain, but may alleviate some of the marital tensions that have come up with it
A financial stress checklist
Knowing when to see a financial therapist isn't easy. As with deciding to see any sort of therapist, people often put it off, hoping they can make things better on their own. Experts, though, say there are a few signs to watch for, indicating you might be out of your depth.
1) If your discussions about finances are regularly becoming more heated — and left without resolution.
2) Worries over finances and their impact on your relationship are keeping you awake at night or causing severe anxiety. (Often, only one spouse is going through this, but it's still a sign that you both should visit a therapist).
3) Neither party is willing to take their share of blame for a situation, heaping it instead on their partner.
4) Often the person making the most money feels they might be in a more powerful position, but puts that in a blind trust with the spouse who handles the finances on an ongoing basis (paying bills, whoever does the majority of the shopping, etc.). This can raise power issues, which lead to resentment.
The list of concerns people address in financial therapy is, not surprisingly, extensive. It can even extend into the world of insurance — though, admittedly, that's infrequent. Longer term planning tends to draw less angst in a relationship than day-to-day money management issues.
"We cover things like insurance and taxes, but typically the thing that pulls people into the door is debt, budgeting, credit and babies and future investing," says Carlson. "Insurance can be a situation, but typically it's tied to the lack of updating the insurance and the beneficiaries. For instance, someone dies and money is left to the ex-wife."
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1 Suntrust Bank, “Love and Money,” Feb. 4, 2015.
2 "Stress in America: Paying With Our Health," Feb. 4, 2015.
3 "Narrative Financial Therapy: Integrating a Financial Planning Approach with Therapeutic Theory," 2013.
4 Journal of Financial Therapy, "The Financial Therapy Association: A Brief History," 2010.