Financial Feuds And Relationship Wreckage

By: James P. Krehbiel

One of the major presenting problems that couples bring to the counseling process is financial conflict. Many partners believe that if the issues of finances can be resolved, then their relationship will be restored. However, financial conflict in marriage is symptomatic of various underlying problems that warrant exploration.

Years ago, I recall a married couple who sought my counseling services over their inability to navigate financial roadblocks. The wife was being accused by her husband of being an over-spender. The husband had a pattern of scrutinizing his wife's shopping habits, and she felt a need to justify every penny she spent.

This couple bantered back and forth, both justifying their financial perspective. The husband had been micromanaging his wife's spending pattern and wanted an accounting for expenditures for each credit card statement. He believed that his wife was spending extravagantly, and he felt a need to convince me that his wife was an impulse-shopper.

Since the counseling process was at an impasse, I decided to use a counseling strategy called paradoxical intention designed to "call the husband's bluff." I asked him to appear at our next session with six months of credit card statements. "Let's take a look at what's going on here, I replied. Maybe I can shed some light on your dilemma."

At the next meeting, the husband came prepared with a briefcase full of monthly credit card statements. He pulled one report out and indignantly handed it to his wife. I asked her to explain certain charges. As I expected, she was able to account for every charge and her recollection was amazing. I recall saying, "How do you remember all of the details of these expenses?" "That's easy, she responded. I've developed a masterful pattern of justification in response to my husband's badgering." As we proceeded through statement after statement, it became clear that this woman's spending was reasonable, was selfless, was for the benefit of her family, and was by no means extravagant. During our session, her husband's anger escalated progressively as his wife methodically recalled detail after detail of their family expenses.

What occurred with this couple is not unusual. I see this scenario of financial feuding played out repeatedly within the context of counseling. The primary question is, "What are the real underlying issues which perpetuate this dysfunctional pattern of relating?" Here are some clues:

One or both partners who fight over money often use anger and rage as a vehicle for punishing their spouse. For some married couples, it appears safer to feud over finances than to address core underlying issues affecting the marriage. For couples who choose to experience healing, underlying issues of power and control, the need to parent, addressing mistrust and respect, and avoiding denial must be honestly confronted. Only then will the feuding end and marital harmony begin.

James P. Krehbiel is a licensed professional counselor and nationally certified cognitive-behavioral therapist practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona. He can be reached at (480) 664-6665 or via email at

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