"Michael has a double standard when it comes to money," says Patricia, 34, about her husband of three years. "He is a successful attorney who collects expensive wine, wears designer suits, plunks down hundreds of dollars for dinner at fancy restaurants, and takes upscale vacations. But when it comes to furniture, renovations, groceries, my wardrobe, baby gear, or gifts — in other words, stuff I value — he's a tightwad. Michael claims my spending is out of control, so now he's micromanaging our finances. He insists that I turn over receipts and flies into a rage if I've bought 'too many' bath towels or 'spent too much' on my sister's birthday present. We fight constantly. Our daughter, Allyson, is only 6 months old; I hate to think that she's growing up in a home with so much hostility.
"In fact, I'm a superb bargain hunter — I never pay retail for anything. But Michael is disdainful of the effort I spend finding the right deal. He's loving and attentive to Allyson, but he acts like I can't do anything right. Thanks to my hard work, our Philadelphia condo is beautifully decorated. But has he ever paid me a single compliment? No. All he does is criticize.
"Our approach to money reflects our different approaches to life: I'm an optimist, whereas Michael's a pessimist who is convinced a pink slip and doomsday are just around the corner. He earns a handsome salary. We're investing wisely. We pay our credit cards in full every month and carry no debt beyond our mortgage. Plus, we have plenty of discretionary income, despite the fact that I have no salary at the moment because I'm staying home with the baby. But for the past year we've fought nonstop about money. Our arguments get really ugly. Then we give each other the silent treatment for days. We're so angry we hardly ever have sex."
"I grew up in a middle-class family, the eldest of three daughters. Mom was a housewife and Dad worked in insurance. We never ate out or took vacations — luxuries I take for granted now. Still, I didn't feel deprived and overall, my childhood was happy. I'm still close with my parents and sisters.
"I met Michael five years ago at a friend's wedding. He was just out of law school and had accepted a job at a top firm in Philadelphia. I worked in sales for a fabric company. I was drawn to Michael's good looks as well as his dry wit, which shone through as we discussed movies, theater, and city life. The next day he invited me to dinner. We clicked so well that soon we were inseparable.
"Our personalities are very different: I'm spur of the moment and a bit disorganized, always juggling a million things; Michael is disciplined, efficient, and focused on the task at hand. But back then, we found our differences appealing and even joked that it would do us good if my spontaneity rubbed off on him and his responsibility rubbed off on me!"
"As newlyweds Michael and I got along great. We never argued. We ate at fancy restaurants and spent summer weekends at the beach. Things started to sour when I became pregnant with Allyson. We were surprised that I conceived immediately. In retrospect, Michael wasn't emotionally prepared for fatherhood. As my pregnancy progressed, he became increasingly stressed out about the financial responsibility of raising a child.
"Since our one-bedroom condo was too small for a family, we bought a two-bedroom in a luxury high-rise. We got a great deal, but the place needed a total overhaul. I missed a lot of work in my first trimester because of horrible morning sickness, so I quit my job and focused on the renovation, hiring and supervising the architect and a platoon of contractors. We created a budget, but we grossly underestimated the costs and how long the project would take. As it stretched on, Michael became more and more nervous about the escalating expense. When I asked him to help make decisions, he dragged his feet until I ended up deciding alone — only to face his criticism after he saw the bills.
"One of our most vicious fights was about $2,500 I spent on a still-life painting for our foyer. The artist is a friend and he gave it to me as a 'loaner' so we could see whether it was right for our space. I adored it, and my friend offered to sell it to me for half price. Michael lost his temper when he saw the canceled check. He claimed I bought the painting 'behind his back,' yet I distinctly recall that he never gave me a straight answer when I asked whether he liked it."
"We also argue about what I spend on baby stuff. At an upscale store, I fell in love with a $1,100 crib that converts to a toddler bed, but I did my homework and got it for $800 at an online outfit. Yes, it was expensive even with the discount. Yes, I could buy a crib at Sears for a lot less money. But it's a beautiful piece that will be in our family for generations, and we could afford it. Still, Michael went ballistic when the bill came in. That's when he demanded that I hand over every receipt for his review.
"The renovation project is almost over, but not our fights. Michael thinks I buy too many clothes and shoes for myself and just the other day screamed at me for 'hiding' my purchases in the back of our closet and accused me of lying. It's true I don't go out of my way to tell him what I've bought. But does that make me a liar? What about his spending? I haven't noticed him cutting back on his wine collection.
"Recently, Michael has been staying out late at client dinners, drinking too much and forgetting to tell me he'll be late. I know he's doing this to spite me. In addition to his work and money worries, Michael is angry that I don't pay as much attention to him as I used to. But how can I? After a long day with the baby and everything related to the renovation, I'm wiped out. I still love Michael and don't want a divorce, but I can't bear the way things are now."
"So Patricia thinks I'm a tightwad," said Michael, 30, in a clipped tone. "Well, I call it being financially responsible. We're investing for our retirement and our daughter's education, but I'd like us to stash away more of my salary. My wife just wants to spend it.
"Patricia goes overboard on everything. She buys too much food — and she shops at gourmet stores, not supermarkets. She's extravagant when it comes to clothes for herself and Allyson as well as gifts for friends and family. She owns 75 pairs of shoes; her side of our closet is so packed I don't know how she finds anything. Yes, I flew off the handle after she spent $800 on a crib. And yes, I now insist she turn over all her receipts. I got tired of being unpleasantly surprised every month when the bills rolled in. But I'm hardly the cheapskate she makes me out to be: I collect fine wine and pay top dollar for business suits. Like Patricia, I like having a nicely furnished home. But do we need a designer sofa? Won't a moderately priced one do?
"Sometimes I think I'm just a paycheck to Patricia. When I ask her about bills, she ignores me or gets defensive. So then I yell or make hurtful comments, thinking maybe that will get through to her. It doesn't. Patricia hasn't reduced her spending. Our relationship is in shambles. Our sex life is all but nonexistent.
"My cautious attitude about money is rooted in my childhood. Mom was a housewife who doted on her four kids. Dad was a lawyer who squandered his salary on alcohol. My parents ended up getting divorced when I was 18, and at retirement my father had nothing but Social Security to live on. I do not want to end up like him. I worked part-time at a supermarket in high school to earn money for college because Dad wouldn't pay for it. I put myself through law school with loans I'm still paying off. I find it ironic that I'm now the one accused of being 'cheap.'"
"Patricia is the most beautiful, energetic woman I've ever met — the kind of person whose natural radiance attracts people. On the night we met she was a font of information on Philadelphia, where I was a newcomer. Within a few months, I was madly in love. Patricia brought an excitement to my life that I hadn't known I was missing.
"When we were dating I sensed that Patricia was more liberal with money than I was but I didn't realize how wide the gap was until we started remodeling the condo. We set a budget for everything, and I made it clear that I wanted to stick to it. With a baby on the way, I felt anxious about the expense of raising a child. I wanted to exercise some restraint, especially since Patricia stopped working after her first trimester. I didn't mind that — she was so sick in the beginning she could barely work anyway — but I don't like the fact that she disregarded all my concerns. If she found something for our home that was beyond our budget but that she couldn't resist — the antique light fixture in our bathroom, for instance — she'd buy it without telling me. Or she'd upgrade to more expensive sinks and faucets, saying the investment would enhance our resale value. I wouldn't know about these purchases until I looked in the checkbook. One of our worst fights was over that painting. I've hated it since the day her friend loaned it to us and I've repeatedly told her so. But Patricia has a selective memory. As for her claim that I don't help her make decisions, well, what's the point? She'll do what she wants anyway.
"Patricia is deceitful in other ways, too. It's gotten to the point where she hides her purchases in places she thinks I won't look. Once I came across an expensive leather handbag with the tags still on it wedged behind pots and pans in a kitchen cabinet. When I asked her about it, she cried and accused me of not loving her.
"Yes, I'm guilty of staying out late with clients and not calling. Yes, I'm guilty of drinking a bit too much these days. I'm ashamed of this behavior, but I'm so unhappy at home that client events have become a refuge. I love my wife, and I want our marriage to work, but this money situation cannot continue."
The Counselor's Turn
"Both Michael and Patricia found in the other what they were looking for in a mate — a complement," said the counselor. "The spontaneous, but scattered, Patricia needed a man who was practical and organized, while the reserved, but controlling, Michael needed a woman who was more exuberant. Yet, as often happens, the very qualities that drew them together now threatened to tear them apart.
"Why is this? If you marry your complement, it's vital that you accept your differences. If you try to change the other person, you'll butt heads for the rest of your lives. That's what was happening here: Patricia's spontaneity contributed to her impulsive spending, and she was furious when her husband assumed a paternalistic role. His controlling nature contributed to his fiscal caution, and he was furious that she was irresponsible with their money.
"The arrival of a baby usually amplifies such differences. That was the case with Patricia and Michael, who didn't expect to become parents so quickly. He was still reeling from the reality of impending fatherhood when Patricia's spending on everything began to escalate. Michael retaliated by distancing himself from Patricia and becoming tighter with money. When the couple started counseling, they were so angry they didn't even listen to each other."
"My first task was to get them to understand how their families had shaped their attitudes about money. As a child, Patricia never imagined that she'd have access to the type of money that Michael earns, and she was behaving like the proverbial kid in a candy store. Her inherently disorganized nature contributed to her impulsiveness. For example, if she found towels on sale, she'd buy four sets, even if she needed only two. Excessive spending can be a cry for help. But I think for Patricia the inclination was a function of her background and sincere desire to create a beautiful home. The fact that she took so much pleasure from decorating reinforced her extravagance.
"For Michael, a fear of ending up like his father turned him into a fiscal conservative. Although he was generous early in the marriage, the more he offered Patricia, the more she wanted. By pushing the limits, Patricia was turning her husband into a controlling daddy figure.
"I helped Michael see that Patricia's spending was not driving them into debt, and I helped Patricia see that Michael's concerns about his job security and his desire to save money were reasonable. They needed to strike a balance between their extremes. For Patricia, that meant creating budgets for renovation projects, general household expenses, and clothing and sticking to them. She also had to stop spending impulsively, to stop rationalizing that she bought only 'on sale,' and to stop hiding purchases or lying about them to Michael.
"Meanwhile, I urged Michael to stop questioning and reviewing Patricia's every purchase, and to stop being scornful of the time she devoted to the renovation. To allay some of his anxiety, the couple decided to earmark more of his paycheck for investments, making less discretionary income available. They started doing so once the renovation was complete."
"Additionally, the couple had to learn to communicate more effectively. Their pattern of not listening, interrupting, screaming, and name-calling only created more and more ill will. 'It's okay to be upset and say, Why did you do that?' I explained, 'but it's not okay to debase one another.' Meanwhile, with no prompting from me, Michael stopped staying out late and drinking too much. He also came to see that it was both unrealistic and selfish to expect Patricia to lavish the same amount of attention on him that she had given before they became parents.
"I also encouraged Patricia and Michael to be more accepting of each other's personalities. Although people can modify their behavior, they cannot change their core beings. This is a big issue in couples counseling, because spouses often want to change the other spouse in ways that are impossible. It's not as if Patricia will never overspend again or that Michael will become a spendthrift. These two will never see eye to eye on everything — and that's okay. What's most important is that they reach an acceptable compromise.
"Finally, I encouraged Patricia to consider turning her passion for decorating into a profession. Michael, who came to appreciate his wife's skills, agreed and encouraged her to get accredited as an interior designer. Patricia has done this and is planning to launch her own business when Allyson starts preschool.
"The couple spent two years in counseling, working hard to make the changes that ultimately saved their relationship. Not only do they now set and largely stick to a budget, but they also save a larger percentage of Michael's salary. They've also learned to listen more respectfully to each other's concerns. As their relationship improved, they felt more loving toward each other, and their sex life improved. 'Counseling helped me understand myself better,' Michael told me recently. 'I'm not as uptight about money as I used to be. I realized that Patricia didn't spend money to be vindictive. Rather, she did it to maintain a lifestyle that was within our means.' Both Patricia and Michael credit counseling with making them more patient with each other. 'Best of all,' adds Michael, 'we've fallen in love all over again.'"
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on interviews with clients and information from the files of Mindy R. Schiffman, PhD, a clinical psychologist and certified sex therapist in New York City. The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities. "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is a registered trademark of Meredith Corporation.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, March 2006.