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Battle Over Money Control Can Bankrupt a Marriage

October 14, 1989|EVAN CUMMINGS | Evan Cummings is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Jim and Paula have been fighting about money again.

In fact, the only arguments the Santa Ana couple have are about money--how much to spend, how much to save, what to spend it on.

But money wasn't always a source of conflict.

When they married 16 years ago, Jim, a city planner in Santa Ana, was the breadwinner and financial decision maker. And although Paula never really felt good about it, she didn't object. After all, her father handled the money in her family.

But three years ago, with her two children approaching adolescence, Paula, 37, obtained a nursing degree and went to work full time. Now she's no longer willing to let her husband make all the major financial decisions.

Jim, 41, sees it differently. While he concedes that Paula's job as head nurse in a Los Angeles hospital requires her to work harder than he does, he believes his higher earnings--nearly double hers--give him the right to control the purse strings.

"Jim came from a traditional home," explains Paula, who requested anonymity. "His mother didn't work, and his father ruled the roost. She had to ask permission to buy a dress. It has been difficult for him to accept the fact that I have changed, that I am more my own person today than I was when we were first married."

Jim and Paula's battle over family finances is not unusual.

In fact, Orange County financial planners and family counselors say they are seeing an increasing number of couples like Jim and Paula who are seeking advice on how to handle money and the accompanying domestic problems.

A decade ago, about 10 of the 50 adult clients Huntington Beach clinical psychologist Kenneth Fineman saw each week cited money issues as a main factor in marital discord. Today, he said, he's seeing 35 to 40 with money problems.

Inflation, Fineman said, is a major culprit.

"My guess is that, for most people, inflation has far outstripped their ability to keep up, or to cope, with the increased money demands for them in their family," he said. He also cited another factor: the increase in the types of leisure activities and high-priced electronic gadgets available today--all of which may be more than a couple can afford.

"People put these items on charge cards or take out loans, and they get in trouble doing it," he said. "One of the primary difficulties (couples have) is the control issue: how the money is spent and who determines what it's spent for."

Before feminism began taking hold in the early '70s, Fineman says, husbands typically handled the finances. It was not uncommon for many wives to be completely unaware of assets, liabilities, investments or even the amount of life insurance their husbands carried. Today, with many women earning as much or more than their husbands, that has changed. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 1988, 66.5% of all married women paid the monthly bills compared to 23.1% during the 1950s.

But the change has not come easily, particularly among couples in traditional marriages.

"At the beginning of a marriage, a husband will often arbitrarily take over the finances, and the wife will automatically acquiesce to him," Fineman says. "But as she grows in the marriage, she begins to feel stifled by this arrangement and wants to assume more responsibility. The husband, accustomed to his role, is frequently reluctant to give up that power."

As a certified financial planner for Felton-Collins, Woodhouse & Associates in Costa Mesa, Victoria Felton-Collins regularly consults with couples about their finances. She believes too much blame is placed on husbands for wives not having a role in financial decision making.

"It isn't as simple as the husband taking over," says Felton-Collins, who has a doctorate in psychology. "In our practice, we frequently see married women--housewives and career women alike--who do not want to take responsibility for finances or investments. Perhaps they were brought up to believe that men should have all the control or feel insecure about their financial savvy. So they give all the responsibility to the man, who, because of the way he was taught to think, takes over. A pattern is set, which, years later, is difficult to change."

But Felton-Collins believes the problem is not insurmountable.

Most of these couples "have a great marriage," she says. "All that stands in their way is money."

According to the financial planner, every couple brings two portfolios to a marriage: financial and psychological. The psychological portfolio is filled with values, traditions, beliefs, standards, feelings, goals, wants and needs, she says.

The financial portfolio, she explains, is filled with cash in and cash out . She maintains that the only way a couple can work together is to integrate these portfolios.

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