Recession pushed a real-life couple into therapy. What they found when they got there: money was synonymous with love and security.
DAVID RICKEY — In early 1988 I began work with a couple, (we’ll call them George and Martha), whose relationship seemed to be a victim of the ’87 recession. Martha worked as an interior designer; George worked at a Wall Street investment firm.
The recession was the cause of his being laid off and it also saw a decline in her business. Before this upheaval they had lived a very comfortable lifestyle on the Upper Westside of Manhattan.
They came to me because they found that most of the time that they were together now, they were fighting or just irritable, and there was a big decline in intimacy. They thought all this had to do with the decline in their income and therefore the lowering of their “lifestyle”.
While on the surface this was true, as they talked with me — both individually and as a couple — it became clear that the financial shift really served to bring to the surface deeper issues.
This couple had both come to the relationship with several unconscious expectations. Her father had been a “good provider” who worked long hours for his family. George’s father had measured self-worth by what you produced. Martha had the expectation that “the man would provide”. He had a tenuous sense of self-worth. Martha was now “having to be” the primary provider. She felt stressed by the decline in her work and resentful that he wasn’t “providing”. George felt her resentment and blamed himself for “not producing”.
Their communication suffered because she could only blame him for not being what he was supposed to be — and he couldn’t defend himself without being angry, because on a deep level, he agreed with her. And that was too painful to admit.
Over the years I have found that arguing face-to-face is usually a set-up for disaster. It’s more like a tug-o-war as each tries to hold on to their fragile sense of self, in defense against the expertise of the attack.
“I” statements often end up being juxtaposed with “You” statements. Martha would say “Why do I have to be working so hard? If you cared you’d find a job and take the pressure off me!” For a while, George had trouble interviewing for jobs because he felt unqualified. The sense of relationship, intimacy, was diminished.
When the argument is about money, as many will be in these times, a deeper issue is looming. Money is synonymous, unconsciously, with love and security. If there seems to be not enough money, the experience is: “I am not loved, or lovable, or safe.” Or just primal id-space anxiety.
A technique I use is for the couple to sit next to each other, side by side, and imagine the “problem” to be on the coffee table in front of them. It’s like Margaret Cullens’ description of the Aikido approach to conflict: “We” are working together to solve “this” problem that we are looking at together.
This creates a sense of caring and companionship which bolsters the sense of being loved – “You are with me in this.” It diminishes the level of anxiety from being isolated. It is also easier to see what possible solutions there are from the shared, “How can we solve this problem?” The marriage vow says: “I will be with you in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer.” These are life experiences we will share, and together we will find a way through them.
George and Martha began to sense a new togetherness. Their relationship became less dependent on having and doing, and more supported by “being” together. George’s defensiveness shifted to, “how can I help you while I’m looking for a better job?”
Martha began to realize that they were “managing” and would survive as they worked together toward a better solution. They began to enjoy finding creative ways of living with less because they were doing it together.
They were able to let go expectations from their histories and no longer look to the other to provide materially or bolster a sagging sense of self-worth.
In this way they each healed the inner wounds they had absorbed from their parents. Martha realized that her father paid for being a good provider by being frequently absent from the family. George could see how his father never felt “good enough” and had passed that on to him.
In the end, the external financial crisis gave them the opportunity to re-prioritize their lives to spend more time together and to find work that was satisfying a truer sense of self rather than an internalized expectation they had inherited. Martha could find satisfaction in her design work without focusing on making money. George found a new job for less money but for a non-profit organization he believed in.
I can’t say with certainty that they lived happily ever after. But last time I saw them they did seem more alive and vibrant. Maybe you have a similar story that you’d like to share . . .
David Rickey is an Episcopal priest, Soul’s Code co-founder and counselor in San Francisco who does a weekly ministry at a residence for the elderly in northern California. Follow David on Twitter.
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