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May/June 2011 Issue

Couples & Money: Financial Social Work to the Rescue
By Maura Keller
Social Work Today
Vol. 11 No. 3 P. 24

Money is one of the big issues that bring couples into therapy. Learn about a relatively new social work specialty that is offering solutions.

With the divorce rate in the United States hovering around 50%, combined with an economic recession that has affected all demographics, it should come as no surprise that more couples are turning to social workers for financial therapy. While financial difficulties may not be the root of all relationship strife or marital demise, they certainly play an important role—one that therapists are addressing.

What Goes Up, Must Come Down
In today’s economy, almost everyone is being forced to make financial choices as the cost of gas, food, and clothing surge and incomes remain flat and unemployment high. This has highlighted the need for financial therapy, as many couples are having to reorganize around their finances and, as a result, are experiencing stress in their relationships.

“The result is an underlying stress, which inevitably causes friction in relationships,” says Reeta Wolfsohn, CMSW, founder of the Center for Financial Social Work in Asheville, NC. “The lack of experience with money management and the shame, fear, and secrecy which accompany debt impacts sense of self and makes sharing openly and honestly with another much more difficult.”

As a licensed psychotherapist and author of Worried Sick: Break Free From Chronic Worry to Achieve Mental & Physical Health, Karol Ward, LCSW, agrees that the hottest issues surrounding couples financial therapy have been triggered by the current state of the economy.

“Couples are finding themselves with either one or both out of work, and their ability to cover mortgages, rent, children’s education are compromised,” Ward says. “These cause a ripple effect in their emotional and psychological functioning.”

The recession aside, Wolfsohn points out that many couples also lack healthy personal and financial boundaries or strong communication skills, so money conversations inevitably escalate into ongoing arguments that spill into every area of their lives.

The majority of couples Linda Stiles, LSCSW, LCSW, CFSW, works with cite disagreements and stress related to financial issues as a significant problem, sometimes as the primary issue.

“Issues connected to finances and money are an underlying issue for approximately 80% of couples, even if they don’t articulate this in the first session,” Stiles says. “A wide range of financial issues, including differences in handling money, spending patterns, and financial infidelity, can become serious, ongoing conflicts.”

According to Stiles, a common scenario surrounding couples financial therapy is exemplified by Mary and Bob (names and identifying info changed to protect confidentiality). Bob overspends, resulting in mounting credit card debt. Feeling guilty and afraid of Mary’s reaction, he attempts to hide his transactions. His overspending behavior is tied to stress and other difficult emotions, including feeling powerless in some area(s) of his life.

When Mary finds out about the spending/debt, she feels powerless to control her own financial stability due to the shared financial responsibility, the impact on funds for regular bills and other important needs, the impact on their credit scores, etc. She also feels angry and fearful about what may happen to them.

“The deception feeds trust issues and increases Mary’s anxiety,” Stiles says. “She attempts to coerce Bob into changing, which results in Bob reasserting his right to spend what he wants and ‘not be controlled.’”

Mary also makes negative comments about Bob, undermining his already shaky self-esteem, and he feels less safe in the relationship and less willing to be open and honest with Mary.

In these situations, anger and resentment build up, leading to conflict and power struggles. The ripple effect in the relationship can go on and on, perpetuating the negative cycles and leading to additional problems.

While disclosing financial stressors is paramount in couple’s financial therapy, a term being bandied about these days is “financial infidelity.” As Bill Frederick, LCSW, PC, of Solution Therapy Center in Muncie, IN, explains, many couples often employ the “this is my money and that is your money” approach—with the implicit understanding of who buys the groceries, who pays for the truck, who covers the electric bill, and so on.

“This especially fails when someone buys a boat or upgrades the vehicle without checking with the other person,” Frederick says. “This is also done with ongoing credit card purchases that the other does not know about until the bill from the [sometimes new] credit card is often accidentally seen.”

For many couples, the deceit and secretiveness of financial infidelity can be as powerful as an extramarital affair.

Approaches to Take
To meet the increasing need for couples’ financial therapy, Wolfsohn has created the Financial Social Work specialty, which has evolved into a two-pronged approach.
“Clients use their session time to discuss the issues which are most pressing; these may or may not be specifically about money but are almost always an outgrowth of financial problems or issues,” Wolfsohn says.

Additionally, Wolfsohn provides her clients with specific original psychosocial readings and activities they can study and work on between sessions to improve their relationship with their money and to learn more about their financial behavior, which Wolfsohn says are two of the most important components for creating sustainable, long-term financial behavioral change.

In her practice, Stiles takes a multifaceted approach when working with couples on financial issues. Depending on the nature of the issues and the seriousness of the financial situation, Stiles utilizes a combination of interventions addressing emotional and relational issues as well as financial management and behaviors.

“I think of the financial issue itself as the ‘tip of the iceberg’ and always look for the underlying issues and needs which must be identified and addressed,” Stiles says. “Issues of power and control, autonomy, security, self-esteem, and competency are common issues. Beliefs and expectations about roles are also key issues.”

Ultimately, the way a couple communicates and handles conflict about finances and these related issues are the underpinnings of the problem and, in most cases, the couples’ ability to resolve conflict is a key factor in the relationship’s success.

Ward uses some aspects of family systems concepts when she works with couples. “The exploration of how their families of origin discussed, handled, and managed finances is very important. Core beliefs about money and where those beliefs originated help the couple understand whether those beliefs are hindering them now,” she says.

Ward also has couples create genograms that focus on the financial life of their families of origin. They look at the history of who worked and who didn’t and whether there were gambling, bankruptcy, or entitlements issues. “I have found this can help the couple discover the roots of any long-held family wounds around finances,” she says.

In Ward’s experience, an overly analytic approach has worked against her when helping couples with financial issues. “In my opinion, when there are financial issues hampering a relationship, there needs to be an action-oriented focus along with the exploration of root causes,” she says. “Actions such as the direct communication of financial fears and needs, the revealing of hidden financial secrets, and creating mutual financial goals create movement and emotional relief.”

Julie Hanks, MSW, LCSW, BCD, owner and director of Wasatch Family Therapy in Salt Lake City, approaches couples’ money struggles from an attachment perspective, first framing the power struggle as part of a larger relational cycle they’re stuck in where one is the pursuer (critical, blaming) and the other is the withdrawer (avoids, delays talking about money issues).

“When couples are flooded by fears and anxiety triggered by money issues, fears surface,” Hanks says. “Money is rarely the real core issue but merely the current topic in an emotional pattern of relating to each other. I help couples understand their cycle of disconnection and learn how to express their deeper feelings of fear or sadness or longing, then how to turn toward each other to comfort emotional needs.”

One of the first steps for Gretchen Placzek, MBA, LCSW, MSW, of East Bay Family Wellness in Lafayette, CA, is having her clients fill out a money history questionnaire.

“I then use the questionnaires and see how their history relates to their current financial struggles as a couple,” she says. “Over several sessions, I work with them to build empathy for each other in how they view things financially. This typically can break down some of the barriers between them and start to foster the beginning stages of compromise. Financial problems in a relationship are still one of the top reasons relationships end. That being said, it is almost always combined with other emotional issues in the relationship, primarily a lack of closeness, a lack of trust, and communication difficulties.”

Biggest Struggles
One of the biggest issues many clients struggle with is shame because of their inability to handle money. “They are ashamed they don’t make enough. They are ashamed they haven’t paid their taxes or have credit card debt. They are usually so ashamed that they don’t share that information or even their struggle with their partner,” Ward says.

Likewise, one of the biggest mistakes social workers make in dealing with couples in financial stress is to only focus on the topic of money.

“They are missing out on crucial relationship patterns and emotions that are the core of the problem,” Hanks says. “From the statistics I’ve read, money is often stated as the dealbreaker in relationships, but I don’t buy it. I believe money is a common hot button topic, but it is emotional disconnection that is the real cause of relationship breakup. It’s easier for couples to talk about things like money than to identify and share their deeper emotional needs and talk about their deeper longings in the relationship.”

“Research seems to support money problems being the No. 1 cause of divorce,” Wolfsohn says. “I don’t think it is really all that simple to quantify because money means so many different things to each person. While most people today have financial problems, everyone has financial issues, which makes it incredibly challenging for two people to accommodate each others’ unique thoughts, feelings, and attitudes about money into their own personal financial thinking and process without disagreement and conflict.”

Wolfsohn adds that while clients want change, actively participating in personal change requires commitment, which is often strong initially but can be difficult to sustain over time.

“Clients experiencing financial stress or problems are very likely to be struggling with the kind of fears which tend to be debilitating, paralyzing, chronic, and isolating and cause or contribute to depression, insomnia, and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness,” she says. “Under such devastating conditions, it can be hard enough for individuals or couples to cope with their situation without trying to learn new skills and tools for taking control of their money, even though that really is the only way to gain control of their lives.”

The Role of the Social Worker
Wolfsohn’s work has taught her the importance of social workers recognizing how foundational money problems are to all the other problems facing couples.

“I have always believed that social workers are the perfect profession to help people to increase their emotional stability by improving their financial circumstances,” Wolfsohn says. “Social workers have the education, training, and experience to help people change behavior. When it comes to money, until and unless behavior changes, nothing changes.”

“In some ways, it is unfortunate that financial therapy is still such a new concept, as there are so many clients that need the help and are unaware that the services are available to them,” says Carin Catalano, MPAcc, MS, LMFTA, of Financial Therapy Services, LLC in Seattle.

Catalano has also seen counselors refer to themselves as financial therapists, but they are not properly credentialed to perform therapy. “I believe this is misleading and improper,” she says. “There is a distinct difference in money coaching, financial counseling, and financial therapy. The process is different, the disclosures and ethics/law are different, and it is important in protecting the integrity of the field, particularly while it is taking shape, that the distinctions and boundaries are clear in this regard.”

Catalano recommends that social workers and other therapists collaborate with all the professionals in the couple’s life—financial planners, estate attorneys or planners, etc.

“This capitalizes on the synergy and expertise of all the professionals involved who understand the client in multiple contexts,” she says.

— Maura Keller is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.


Financial Social Work Certification
Financial therapy has changed in recent years and is becoming a specialty for many social workers.

“The economic crisis of the past few years created a need for this specialization,” says Karol Ward, LCSW. “The crisis, in an odd way, ended up revealing many of the unhealthy and unconscious ways people were dealing with money. I do feel this time period is an opportunity for many people to get back on track with their finances and educate themselves about the financial values that matter to them.”

Certified financial social work programs, such as those at the Center for Financial Social Work in Asheville, NC, provide certification programs that aim to educate social workers on how to help people with financial problems increase their emotional stability by improving their financial circumstances.

“While the problems are not new, the field of financial social work is a new model to help individuals in their quest for mental and financial health,” says Bill Frederick, LCSW, PC. “Experience indicates the most effective way to create a successful money relationship with someone is to schedule regular financial discussions. Financial social work is a process that is introspective and incorporates education, motivation, and ongoing support.”

As Juliet Keeler-LeBien, LCSW, LMSW, CFSW, of New York City, explains, “Financial social work is a specialized training that MSW clinicians go through to gain greater insight and sensitivity to help our clients. It combines several different types of therapy—mindfulness, CBT [cognitive behavioral therapy], motivational interviewing—to address these crucial behaviors with our patients. This postgraduate training for financial social work has given me unique tools to help people deal with one of the most frustrating, frightening, and even taboo parts of their lives: their behavior around money.”

— MK