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Money's role in marriage woes

PERSONAL FINANCE

Financial infidelity can destroy trust as quickly as a physical affair, a therapist says.

June 01, 2008|Kathy M. Kristof | Times Staff Writer

When her husband gave one of her coats to charity while she was at work, Tara Padua Wise got her vengeance. At the mall.

"When I asked him about it, he said, 'It was for your own good. It was an ugly coat. It didn't flatter you,' " Wise said. "I was traumatized. And then I said, 'OK, you don't like this coat? How about this one from Saks Fifth Avenue?' "

That new $500 coat was what Bonnie Eaker Weil calls a typical marital "pop-shot," a term the New York-based couples therapist coined. ("Pop" is an acronym for "pissed-off purchase.")

"A pop-shot is the money you spend getting back at your partner," said Weil, author of "Financial Infidelity: Seven Steps to Conquering the #1 Relationship Wrecker," published last month.

A typical couple endures three to four pop-shots a year, at an average of $486 a pop, Weil estimates based on a study she commissioned of 400 couples.

On the bright side, shopping really does help ease the pain of an argument, Weil said.

"It gives you an adrenaline rush," she said. "Dopamine is released, which is a brain chemical that gives us the feeling of joy, love and happiness."

Unfortunately, the dopamine rush is temporary. The financial effect of the budget-busting lasts much longer. Worse, Weil said, the behavior is a symptom of a far more serious problem that she calls financial infidelity.

The term spans a variety of activities that involve lying about money, such as hiding purchases from your spouse, using cash to mask what you're buying, opening secret bank or credit card accounts, lying about the cost of something you bought or violating a financial agreement that you made with your partner.

Financial infidelity, Weil says, destroys trust just as quickly as a physical affair and leaves more marriages in ruins than alcohol does.

"It's not the buying, it's the deceit," she said. "The deceit is what destroys trust and intimacy."

The therapist, whose other books include "Adultery: The Forgivable Sin," said she discovered the problem when counseling couples in relationships wounded by cheating. In many cases, financial adultery preceded the physical kind.

"There is a real connection between love, sex and money," she said.

How do you avoid financial infidelity?

Weil advises finding ways to talk about money. One of the first things couples should do, she said, is write down their assets, debts and expenses. Each partner should then write down -- and prioritize -- his or her goals related to money.

The goal-setting exercise can be telling. It's not uncommon for couples to have similar goals but prioritize them very differently. One person may consider buying a new car a high priority, whereas another may say a European vacation is more important. Examining the differences can lead couples to better discussions and better compromises.

Psychological exercises can be important too, Weil said, because couples often don't know how to talk about money. More than a third of those questioned in her survey said they found it tougher to talk about finances than to talk about sex.

One reason for that is that money patterns frequently are ingrained in childhood based on how our parents dealt with financial issues, she said. Putting two people together with different financial baggage can be a recipe for disaster if they're unaware of their differences, she said.

So Weil suggests couples go through a handful of psychological exercises to figure out how they view money and what each partner expects from the other. And each should consider whether the other partner is using money as a tool to exert control. Finally, the partners need to figure out how to communicate their wants and needs effectively. If they're long married and have already committed financial infidelity, they need to confess and try to start over, she added.

But talking about money can be a downer, Weil admits, saying it lowers levels of pain-blocking endorphins.

Her solution: "After you talk about money, you should go out for a run or make love" to boost your endorphins. "My patients have better sex lives because they learn to talk about money."

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Kathy M. Kristof welcomes your comments but regrets that she cannot respond to every question. Write to Personal Finance, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, or e-mail kathy.kristof@latimes.com.

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