Marriage, Mental Health, and Money: Protect Your Most Valuable Assets
This is a personal finance blog. We ostensibly write about money. But we’re really writing about creating a better life. Money is only a tool, albeit a powerful one, to apply towards those ends.
Other key elements to a fulfilling and happy life are health and relationships. I spent nearly two decades as a physical therapist learning about physical health.
Mental health and marriage are a different story. These areas of life always came easy for me. I took them for granted. Until they didn’t and I couldn’t.
As I’m sure it has been for many of you, 2020 has been hard for me. Social isolation and sudden massive uncertainty led to debilitating anxiety and depression I’ve never experienced before. My unhealthy mental state opened old wounds in my marriage.
By summer, I hit rock bottom. I wasn’t sleeping. Doing things I’ve always loved held no appeal. My nineteen year marriage was on the rocks.
I was fortunate to find this interview with Terry Real on Peter Attia’s podcast. That interview led me to Real’s books, The New Rules of Marriage and I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression.
Real’s books in turn led me to seek out a therapist trained in his Relational Life Therapy framework, which is how I connected with Kristy Gaisford, LCSW.
We often suffer unnecessarily with mental health issues due to shame and negative stigma. I have a new firsthand appreciation for this and want to do my part to help others avoid this unnecessary suffering.
Working with Kristy has been expensive, time consuming, and emotionally challenging. It’s one of the best investments of money, time, and energy I’ve ever made.
So I asked Kristy to answer a few questions in the hopes it may help others who are struggling. She graciously accepted.
This has been a crazy year with the pandemic and its related social isolation and economic turmoil, natural disasters, social unrest, and an especially contentious election season. What are best practices to maintain a healthy mental and emotional state?
It’s really important to determine what is in your control and what isn’t and to focus on the things that you can control; such as getting enough sleep, regular exercise and spending quality time with friends and family. It’s also important to have a safe place to talk about your feelings and know that you’re not alone. I also think that humor is great because it puts things in perspective.
I assume some anxious feelings and sadness are normal, particularly in these stressful times. At what point is a line crossed from a normal emotional response to needing professional help to deal with anxiety and depression?
Yes, it’s safe to say that everyone has felt some anxiety and grief this year. We have had a huge change in the way we live, our expectations and sense of control.
It’s time to get professional help when your anxiety or sadness are getting in the way of being able to function on a normal level.
- Are you unable to get out of bed or find pleasure in things you used to enjoy?
- Are you suddenly having panic attacks or feeling hopeless about the future?
- Is your depression or anxiety affecting your relationships?
These are all indications that it’s time to get help.
Two of my biggest hurdles to seeking help were a skepticism of therapy and not knowing how to find the right provider. If someone has never tried therapy or had a negative experience in the past, how would you recommend they find a therapist who will be a good fit for an individual’s needs and personality?
It is hard to know where to turn to find the right therapist for you. I think the best way is to ask someone you trust and get referrals from friends.
There are also websites such as psychologytoday.com and goodtherapy.org that have bios and information about therapists in your area with different specialties. You can take time to read about each one and call the ones that seem to be a good fit.
If you have a bad experience, don’t give up. Look for someone else until you find someone you feel comfortable with and that has experience with your issue.
What role does medicine play in the treatment of common mental health issues like anxiety and depression? How do you determine when medical intervention is appropriate and necessary, either as a substitute for or adjunct to talk therapy?
Medication plays an important role when someone is going to therapy and doing the work, but they still don’t feel any better. They look at their life and can’t put their finger on what’s wrong, they just can’t seem to feel good–despite trying everything they can think of. Medical intervention almost always works best in conjunction with talk therapy.
Divorce is both one of the most likely and most devastating financial risks most of us face. It is often said that money is the leading cause of divorce. Your practice focuses on relational therapy. In your experience, have you found this to be true? What are other big risk factors we should be aware of?
I have found that money is almost never the real issue. Usually money problems in marriage are really manifestations of a difference in value systems.
One person may really value security and therefore, saving money is a big deal to them. Their partner may really value freedom and experiences and therefore, being able to spend money and buy experiences is really important to them.
The real issue is the expectations that we bring into a marriage. We think that the way we grew up or the way we do things is the “right way” and we’re appalled that this person we thought was our soul mate is turning out to be a big thorn in our side!
Whether we fight about money, sex, kids, family, household chores, amount of affection, parenting style, communication style, etc. the real issue is that we are two different people with different values, expectations and priorities.
The key to making marriage work is allowing for differences, making space for one person to feel secure and the other to feel freedom, for example. We need to respect each other’s differences without criticism or judgement.
It’s also important to realize that grief is a part of any long term relationship. You will always grieve something and that’s okay. It’s better to feel the grief and recognize it than to resent your partner.
When you have worked with people where finances are an issue, what patterns have you observed? What can we do to take action preemptively?
One of the most common patterns I see in regards to money is that one person is more of a saver while the other person is more of a spender. The saver wants to be secure and make calculated financial decisions. The spender wants to feel free to buy the things they want.
The spender feels controlled by the saver and begins to react passive aggressively by buying things behind their partner’s back or fighting with the partner about feeling controlled. The best way to take preemptive action is to communicate with an open mind and an open heart.
This is not about who is right and who is wrong. There is no such thing. It’s about, “how can we create space in this relationship where we both feel happy and fulfilled?”
It may mean that some finances are kept separate. One person may choose to save their money each month, while the other person always spends their allotment. The key is to respect each other’s decision and value system without judgement or resentment.
It’s interesting that people will get so upset about a spouse’s spending pattern, but then will divorce them and lose so much more than if they had just accepted the fact that their partner will always spend more than they wish they would.
General divorce rates are going down, but “Gray Divorce” is on the rise. What are common causes of marital discord among adults that have been married for decades? What can we do to strengthen our marriages as we age together?
One of the most important things I learned from Terry Real is, “When we don’t speak the truth, intimacy dies.” When marriages fall apart after decades, it’s usually due to a loss of connection.
The couple stopped communicating in vulnerable, honest, open ways. They stopped continuing to get to know each other and stopped putting their energy into the marriage.
Relationships take work and attention to continue to grow. Most people want to be happily married, they just lack the skills to repair things when they get off course.
In our society we’re not really taught how to be a good listener, how to speak in a way that our spouse can take in without being defensive, how to have good boundaries so we’re not so reactive.
You’ve shared with Kim and me that you’ve helped couples work through major issues (infidelity, abuse, addiction, etc) to rebuild happy and healthy marriages. You’ve also seen couples with seemingly minor problems who you haven’t been able to help and who go on to divorce. What are the key factors you’ve observed in couples who are able to repair their marriages? What are common characteristics among couples you haven’t been able to help?
Being able to change requires a certain amount of humility. In the couples that I haven’t been able to help, at least one person hasn’t been able to see their part in the dynamic. They drag their partner into therapy so that they can be “fixed” and are deeply offended at the suggestion that they may have some things to work on too.
On the other hand, couples where both partners are humble, accountable, willing to be vulnerable, admit faults and mistakes and to give each other grace when needed, can generally get through almost anything. This takes an enormous amount of personal work and maturity.
Thanks to Kristy for taking the time to answer my questions so thoughtfully.
A frequent question I get from readers is, “I’d love to pursue a different lifestyle, but how do I get my spouse on board?” I never know how to answer that.
Saving has always been easy for Kim and me. This was true even when we were starting out, making very little money, and paying off debt. To reinforce Kristy’s point, that’s because our goals and values were in alignment. So we worked together and found a way.
When we started to make the transition to early retirement, our relationship dynamics changed. Despite being in the strongest financial position of our lives, we were suddenly fighting about money. Or so we thought.
It had nothing to do with money. It had to do with different, and deeply entrenched, value systems that manifest themselves in how we think about money. We never learned that about each other until our values were misaligned.
If you are trying to get your significant other to save more, cut back on work, or otherwise start transitioning to a new lifestyle or behavior, but you’re butting heads…STOP!
Take the time to figure out why you see things differently. What do you each really want? What in your past is driving your current desires?
Swallow Your Pride
If you’re stuck in your marriage, or struggling with anything else, and anxiety and depression set in, go find help!
We pride ourselves on a DIY ethic and frugality. Sometimes you need help. I’ve written about times when it may be beneficial to seek help with your finances. This applies when you’re stuck or struggling with mental health or relationships as well.
If you could do something yourself, you would already have done it. At the very least, you’d be progressing toward your goals and wouldn’t be feeling frustrated and stuck.
If you need help, find it. There’s no shame there. Frankly it’s dumb to struggle alone when help is all around us.
Sometimes this requires spending money. Kristy makes another great point that some people and couples obsess about spending decisions.
One partner (or both) won’t spend money on things that can improve your relationship and life in general. Then they lose half of everything in a divorce. Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish.
I again want to thank Kristy for her work which has profoundly impacted my life and for taking the time to answer my questions publicly in an effort to help others.
I was hesitant to share something so personal. But if one person who is suffering with anxiety and depression or is on the path to divorce is helped, it will have been worth it to me.
If you want to learn more about Kristy Gaisford and the Relational Life Therapy approach, you can check out her website.
(Full Disclosure: We have no financial relationship. The blog will not be compensated in any way if you click on the links or seek out any services associated with them. I invited Kristy to answer my questions and share these resources with others whom they may help, because I have personally benefited from working with her.)
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[Chris Mamula used principles of traditional retirement planning, combined with creative lifestyle design, to retire from a career as a physical therapist at age 41. After poor experiences with the financial industry early in his professional life, he educated himself on investing and tax planning. Now he draws on his experience to write about wealth building, DIY investing, financial planning, early retirement, and lifestyle design at Can I Retire Yet? Chris has been featured on MarketWatch, Morningstar, U.S. News & World Report, and Business Insider. He is also the primary author of the book Choose FI: Your Blueprint to Financial Independence. You can reach him at email@example.com.]
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Hi Chris, thanks for sharing your experience. I think we’re all going to definitely look back at this time and think man, how did we get through so much uncertainty and lack of freedom and so forth.
San Francisco finally opened up in October and I was happier because I was able to play softball every weekend. I’m just not sure it’ll last.
What percentage of your conflict did Money play a role in you “hitting rock-bottom the summer“ and seeking therapy? I’m just wondering if it’s possible but you retired with not enough money? For example, if you had 1 million more dollars in your savings account, do you think you would have gotten in this type of money conundrum this year?
So many people have pushed back when I recommended significantly lowering their safe withdrawal rate to 0.5% or 0% during the first few years of retirement because of all the uncertainty. I really don’t know anybody who retired early who withdraws at a 4% rate or higher.
I’m hoping that people now have a little bit more humility after going through such extended periods of uncertainty in 2020. I feel, but I don’t know for sure, but many types of money angst post retirement is mainly due to not having enough money saved before retirement in the first place.
I’d love to know your thoughts. Thanks, Sam
Honestly, money played some role in my anxiety when markets were fluctuating wildly, but that role was small. I would say not having enough money played zero role in my depression. I’ve shared publicly that we’ve been able to maintain perspective on just how fortunate we are. We also stuck with our financial plan and rebalanced near the bottom of the drop, though to be clear that was luck and I wouldn’t have predicted we were at the bottom at the time or that things would rebound so quickly.
I’ve also been transparent that we aren’t spending anywhere near 4% of our portfolio, due to fear about low interest rates and high stock valuations. In fact this year, we will have a positive savings rate from her work income, my small writing income and spending less than usual, because… there’s nothing to do and nowhere to go.
Our money issues come from much deeper value differences that didn’t present themselves until we started to change our lifestyles. Kim grew up in a tougher financial situation than I did. Though we mutually agreed to make changes in our lives, she kind of freaked out when our high savings rate went away and showed an extreme scarcity mindset that I hadn’t seen and I don’t think she even realized she had throughout our entire marriage when we were saving aggressively. Instead of being understanding and supportive of her when she struggled, I judged her for not seeing the world the same way I did and we developed a resentment for one another. This has been an issue for the past couple of years, but everything was amplified with the new stress and uncertainty in the world that put me in an unhealthy mental space.
While I appreciate you taking the time to read, ask an honest question, an express an unpopular opinion in the FIRE space, I will be clear that I can not disagree with you more strongly on the idea that I should have stayed in a career that I was burnt out on just to save more. My only regret is that I didn’t take time to develop a deeper understanding of what drove each of us to save so aggressively to get to financial independence and to have more compassion and less judgement when our values diverged as we achieved our original financial goals. And to be clear, I’m the public facing half of our marriage, but we wouldn’t have been able to get back on track if Kim didn’t also see how her past was leading her to think in ways that were rooted in a reality from her childhood that is no longer reality for her today, and that she contributed to our problems as well.
Kristy said it perfectly in that when marriages fail, at least one partner can’t see their role in it. In our case, we are both strong willed, even stubborn, to a fault at time. Things only changed when we both were able to see how we each played a role in the problem and made the decision to stop trying to change the other person, and start trying to improve ourselves.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts further. Yes, I can only share what I observe from afar. I’m glad things are woking out again and Kristi’s advice is good to be more self-aware.
Here’s one last observation that may or may not matter based on what you’ve said: A mismatch of retirement philosophies between the two of you.
B/c you said she has an “extreme scarcity mindset,” then it is harder to ever fully retire due to fear of running out of money etc. Hence this is why I wonder whether if you guys had more money she would be less afraid of running out of money…. which would mean less resentment that you retired etc.
My wife and I made an agreement when she was 32 that she could retire early when she turned 35 in 2015 b/c I retired a couple of months before my 35th birthday. Hence, we shot for equality… and also some cash flow and financial goals before she left too. We made it a challenge and a game.
When she finally retired, it was great b/c financial and career objectives were met, and she also negotiated a severance package. We traveled together a bunch and it was nice. However, I did have some resentment b/c she was able to sleep in while I couldn’t after 13 years of getting up at 5am. So I was jealous she was so relaxed during her initial years. My first year I was always wondering… hmmm did I do the right thing leaving my job so young.
She was so relaxed b/c she didn’t like work and also knew we had financial security.
When there is a mismatch in retirement paths, especially it seems when the wife is still working and the husband is not, no matter how much we say the spouse working loves his or her job, some resentment in the relationship is an inevitability.
My two cents.
That’s a good observation about the resentment. Let me play Devil’s advocate.
If I would have stayed at a job, I would have been going to a job I didn’t like and was burnt out on. I would have been doing it strictly to make more money to provide more security, which I didn’t feel we needed.
I would be missing out on time with my daughter while she was young. This would also require me to give up time to pursue my hobbies which center around outdoor adventures. The latter is potentially time sensitive and dependent on maintaining good health, the former is definitely time sensitive. You only get one opportunity to spend time with your child while they are young and in their formative years.
As you can see, this wouldn’t rectify our differing values. It would just shift the likelihood from her resenting me to me resenting her. The key IMO with the wisdom of hindsight is respecting each other’s different values, allowing space for each of them, and ….this is the hard one at times in any relationship… NOT resenting one another.
All that said, your last point is valid. When there is a mismatch in values and retirement paths it is tricky and avoiding resentment between spouses can be a challenge.
Thank you for sharing so bravely. I think it’s amazing that you had enough self-awareness and open-mindedness to want to seek help. Agree 100% that marriage takes ongoing work — we celebrated 26 years this past July and we still need to check in, have date nights, figure out how to fight and make up! Since this is a money blog, two great books on relationship with a money angle came to mind — Couples That Work by Jennifer Petiglieri (more about career than straight out money issues but a really good book); and Spousonmics by Paula Szuchman.
Thanks for reading and sharing the kind words Caroline. I’ll check out those books.
And congrats on 26 years! Marriage isn’t always easy, but there are many benefits and they are great when you get it right. It is well worth investing the time, money and effort to do so.
Thank you so much for being so open and sharing so we can all learn from your experiences. Wishing you and your family all the best.
Thanks for the kind words Lucy.
Very helpful and honest discussion. Thanks. After 36 yrs of marriage it still takes work on both sides. Walking and talking helps. Unsocial media not so much. Old habits die hard and we tend to revert to root training when stressed by covid or politics. Not always a good thing. I Wish we knew as much about who/what is good therapy for modern malaise as we do about the latest graphics card.
Thanks for the kind words and congrats on 36 years of marriage Joe.
By sharing and being honest, you are helping to make the world better for others. Imagine if everyone were honest about their situations. I think that would really help people who are struggling or just looking for answers.
Thanks for that Susan. Talking about marriage issues is hard because you want to respect your partner, but at the same time you need to have a place to be supported. I honestly don’t know why there is a shame or stigma around mental health issues. It seems like both of these issues are harder for men due to traditional gender roles, though it’s not easy for either side.
For all of those reasons I felt it was important to put this out there. I know the podcast conversation between Peter Attia and Terry Real that I cited helped me find the courage and resources to find the help I/we needed.
Thank you for your willingness to share your experiences with such vulnerability, Chris. Excited to see that you connected with a fellow social worker to help you navigate this most recent challenge! I agree with you that there is a greater opportunity within the FIRE collective to explore how we might solve problems where healthy relationships and financial capability intersect. I look forward to exploring this space in more depth at Love Feeds Wealth. I welcome your feedback to increase its contribution!
Thanks Tara. I was honestly skeptical about what any therapist could do as we’ve done marriage counseling in the past, and if anything it seemed to make our problems worse. We couldn’t have had a more dramatically different experience this time around. I’m honestly not sure if was a different therapeutic approach, us hitting rock bottom and being humbled this time, or some combination. In any event, I’m now a believer and advocate for what you do.
Thanks for sharing, Chris. I will quite soon transition to retirement (not ´early´, but still a challenge) and your post helps me frame the near future with my spouse. She has had a traumatic relation with money due to her parent’s financial problems, and is mostly uncomfortable with spending, so I foresee some challenges in the de-cumulation phase.
It is rare in our society to be a saver. Unfortunately, for many of us who are savers it comes from unhealthy past experiences with money that shape us subconsciously for the rest of our lives if we don’t take the time to understand where our beliefs and values come from. I think it’s wise for you to recognize this and I would encourage you to address this together in advance of it becoming an issue.
Good post that needs to be shared Chris. I think you’re in good company – many (all) relationships are under extra pressure now. We all know folks who’s marriages have blown up. Getting in front of it and investing in your marriage and family is a great decision. All the best!
Thanks for the kind (& wise) words Steve.
I always enjoy your financial expertise; however, this column was extraordinary. You sharing such a deeply personal part of your life so that others might receive a glimmer of hope in midst of struggle is remarkable. Thank you for being honest and even-handed no matter the topic. PS – I’m a super-saver because my mom modeled for me the freedom of being financially secure (even as a single parent after my father decided being married with a baby wasn’t the lifestyle he wanted). She worked hard, budgeted tightly and was frugal in the best sense of the word – valuing what money could provide but never being interested in “things” to the exclusion of experiencing life. I wish every child had at least one strong role model with a positive, mature relationship with money – especially how to use money but never be used by it.
Thanks Rebecca. I agree with your sentiments about positive role models. Unfortunately, few people have that and even for those that do, there is no perfect “right” answer for every situation.
In every relationship, people bring different experiences which shape their perspectives. This is something we all need to consider at times when our values, wants and needs diverge from our partners to find a way through that respects both parties.
I also listened to that same episode of Dr. Peter Attia, and listened to a variety of other podcasts by Terry Real and worked through several of his books, and worked on this with a therapist. All good stuff. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for the feedback Laura. I’m certainly no expert on relationships, counseling, etc. I can only share what worked for me and I’ve become a big fan of Terry Real’s materials and methods over the past couple of months since this chance encounter.
Everyone seems to have a huge adjustment after retirement. Expectations too high and need to adjust to parter who is equally under stress. Can imagine the pandemic multiplying the effect. What changes we had to make. I needed to let some of the spouse’s opinions within conversations go without my comment. Better yet to just offer some supporting comments. We have our separate functions for the household, but I do help out on her side. It’s the old thing where it is best to invest more now than allow resentment to linger. Our retirement plans have changed per blending concerns and thoughts. I’ve learned and adjusted to be more honest with myself. She had a learning curve, meaning learning to appreciate my contributions once leaving work. May the professional workplace stoke ego? Something that is missing at home. BTW, I like to take St Johns wart and have learned the proper dosage. Funny how the stuff works. Less for me is better. I can skip days and just take a half of one pill. One would think at this dosage minimal benefit, but I’ve been up and down on dosage over the years and learned this is the best, and yes helps much. Actually and a good supplement for health.
The adjustment to retirement is indeed HUGE.
This adjustment is what I’ve been trying to convey to people about early retirement all the time. Blindly following a 4% or 3% withdrawal rule isn’t gonna cut it until you actually retire. Yes, you can listen to people preach about retirement when they gainfully employed… but it is vey different once you pull the rip chord.
I’ve made peace and have just allowed my critics to just experience the path for themselves.
Thanks for sharing the insights and experiences Forrest. There’s a lot of wisdom there.
I especially appreciate the idea of investing more earlier to nip things in the bud, rather than allowing resentment to linger. As with most things, it is much easier to prevent a problem than to deal with it when it has spun out of control.
It is also better to build a strong foundation when times are good, because when bad things happen they tend to come in bunches and that can overwhelm you if you’re not starting from a strong position.
Thank you for this post.
Thank you for reading Sharon.
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