Emotional Money: An Interview With Maggie Baker, Ph.D.

Until a few months ago, I was under the impression that money was all about math.  I thought personal budgets were the employment of simple equations, stocks were graphs, risks were variables, etc.  I suppose, in the purest sense, I may have been correct.  However, when considering the way money functions in our lives, I was way wrong.

Several months ago, a friend of mine introduced me to the book, Crazy About Money:  How Emotions Confuse Our Money Choices And What To Do About It.  A couple weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to sit down with the author, Maggie Baker, for a chat about money, emotions and relationships.

First we talked about money and marriage… and divorce.  Maggie told a (probably common) story about a woman who wanted to rent a house after separating from her husband.  While she was married, the woman allowed her husband to handle all of the finances and as a result, she found herself with a poor credit rating and needed someone more credit-worthy to sign the lease with her.

“…Women leave themselves so incredibly vulnerable if they let their husbands do all the finances.  Because if they do get divorced, they have no credit worthiness and they have to assume his.  And, you know, maybe it’s good, but maybe it’s not.”

In the book, Maggie talks about the different personas around money.  I imagine women who end up in this situation are Money Avoiders- it’s probably much more comforting to turn over the finances to one’s trusted partner.  Unfortunately, such a plan can have disastrous consequences regardless of whether or not a couple separates.

Maggie talked about how the finances are handled in her marriage…

“My husband and I separated our finances.  We have completely separate accounts because there’s enough difference in the way we spend and enough difference in how hard we work.  Even though both of us are very hard workers, it’s really interesting. We work about as hard, but I’m much more vigilant about collecting what I’m owed and he’s not particularly, because he just doesn’t think about money. And consequently he ends up making a lot less. And that’s where money vigilance pays off… He’d go out and he’d wanna buy X, Y and Z and he’s not a spendthrift at all. But, I’m so careful with money… And now, if he wants to buy it, God bless him! It’s great, I love it…  We’ve done that now for about seven years… We keep everything completely separate and he has very little interest in what’s going on with it.  And I like all the things you have to deal with that come with it.” 

I enjoyed hearing about Maggie’s arrangement with her husband.  Separating finances and maintaining independent accountability and responsibility can save a lot of stress in the relationship.  It also allows for a cleaner financial break in the event of a divorce.

We went on to talk about family members we knew and the vast differences in peoples’ attitudes and habits regarding money…

“The most important thing is to have a balanced attitude. To have a certain kind of flexibility about how you handle money, so that you have a golden mean.  So that you’re not too expansive and generous and you’re not too stingy and hoardy.  But, it’s hard because the emotions are so complicated and the learning around money is so complicated. It’s hard to be the golden mean.  Most people are extreme in one way or another and then they get caught up in really bad habits…. I think a lot of people feel a great deal of shame about the level of credit card debt they carry and they don’t want anybody to know that.  But at the same time, I think that people are far more comfortable having a lot of credit card debt.  They figure, ‘Everybody else does too, I’m no different from anybody else.’” 

We talked about parents and the desire to help their children.  I brought up the fact that so many divorced parents feel a heightened sense of responsibility to be the Best Parent They Can Be and yet in many ways, this can prevent some individual growth on the part of the parent as well as the child.  Single parents need to take care of themselves first and foremost, so they can exhibit a complete and whole-hearted example for their children.  Sometimes a parent has to step away from the role of being a provider.  Maggie went on to further discuss a topic she addresses in the book…

“What I see that really scares me is that with this generation, there’s been so much investment in the kids being successful so that they do well at college but then end up coming home.  Which has got to feel like a failure in some way.  And they can’t get a job and here’s this kid that’s been highly nurtured to feel that the most important thing in the world is their success, and nobody’s going to hire them.  And then if things continue to not evolve, then very often the parents step in and out of their own sense of frustration and guilt and feeling like they failed because they can’t help their kid, they may start to raid their retirement money to support the child…  To do more education, which may not really be what’s called for.  So my whole value in what I want to impart to the reader is, take care of yourself, you have to learn to see that you can’t fill in the blanks with money.  And you have a right to hold onto that money for yourself.  Even if it means denying your most loved child.  Because what will help the child much more is to sit down with the kid and help them figure out what they’re going to do.  Not ‘Oh, they’re in pain, I’ve got to provide.’  Especially for women, it’s almost reflexive.  And what do they do?  They spend their retirement money to help their kid out and then when they get old, they have no retirement money and then they’re dependent on their kid, who may have hopefully done well, but still most people don’t want to be in that situation…

There’s a concept in psychology called Self Efficacy, which means that people don’t really develop a strong sense of self and a strong sense of self-esteem unless they feel engaged and empowered through their own effort and through the struggle of effort…. Kids who are given too much don’t have that sense of self efficacy.” 

As the conversation continued, we talked about how emotions and money factor into a divorce, beginning with the costly decisions people make in order to avoid losing money (such as paying a lawyer $10,000 to receive another $5,000 from the settlement of the house)…

“And that’s the whole point of loss aversion, that under circumstances of feeling the pain of loss or the risk of losing money, that people do things that are far riskier than if they’re not feeling that pressure…  And if they’re vengeful in their heart against the person they’re divorcing, then it becomes far more important to hurt that other person than it does to just get out of the situation.  So they’ll spend thousands of dollars pushing their lawyer to do all kinds of nasty things to try to get vengeance and of course it’s never satisfied.  And they’re out a lot of money and they were so blinded they couldn’t not do it.”

Money is a big stressor on a marriage and an even bigger one in the event of a divorce.  What I loved so much about Maggie’s book was the way she pulled away the layers and exposed the emotional aspects and early programming that influences our attitudes about money.  While some see it as a weapon or indication of power, others view it as dirty and shameful.  Think about the judgments we make around the money-aspect of a divorce.  Have you demanded a higher settlement?  Have you offered a higher settlement?  Did you consider your ex to be financially abusive?  Did you agree to let him/her have all the money if only you could have the kids/house/dogs, etc.?

I asked about the effect all of this has on children.  Even the most cooperative parents can’t hide all of their frustrations from their kids.  I wanted to know how such a situation might influence the way children grow up to think about money.  In particular, I asked about the outcome of a “flipped script”— what happens, psychologically, when children go from having two parents who comfortably provide to living in a single-parent home where money is scarce.  Although Maggie couldn’t relate any situations about her current patients, she did share an interesting story about the sixteen-year-old daughter of parents who often argued about money.  In a session with Maggie, the girl confessed that she was stressed about money, because her parents fought about it all the time.  Her parents were surprised to learn their daughter felt this way because the truth was that they had plenty of money and simply disagreed often about how to spend it.  Maggie explained…

“She was picking up their emotionality and not the reality of the fact that they did have enough.  That’s what happens to kids all the time; they don’t necessarily know the reality of money but the pick up the affect.  They pick up the emotion behind it.  If there’s a lot of intensity and negative emotion, then kids, being as narcissistic as they are and thinking that everything is about them, they’ll start thinking ‘oh, what’s wrong with me that my parents are fighting about money?  Maybe I’m too demanding…’  They think that they caused the money shortage or the money fight, just like if they’re getting divorced; they think they caused the divorce.  That’s the most important thing with little kids.  They’re immature cognitively, so they can’t put the pieces together… The steamed upedness is what the kids pick up on, without any facts.  So you either end up with an avoider or somebody who feels that they’re a burden and aren’t worth anything.”

This is important to note, regardless of one’s marital status or bank account balance.  Children are perceptive and they pick up on adults’ feelings very easily.  It’s not enough to simply teach children to be responsible with money.  Part of writing a healthy script is to maintain one’s emotional equilibrium where cash is concerned.  If you’re stressed about money, the kids will be as well, and this might not bode well for that monetary golden mean you want them to attain in the future.

As the conversation wound down, I asked if “money” is a topic everyone should discuss in therapy…

“Absolutely, but nobody does.  Since I’ve been doing this and had this emphasis, I get people to talk about money, but I have to be active in asking otherwise they won’t talk about it.  The only way it comes up in therapy is setting the fee and if someone can’t afford it.  When I was being trained, nobody talked about money.  And yet it’s the number one stress in peoples’ lives.”

After reading the book and considering its content, I have to agree.  Money is important for many reasons.  Understanding how we feel and how we use it is key to understanding a whole new aspect of our lives.  This self-knowledge can help us unlock doors to less stress, better budgeting and financial freedom.  In turn, the result will likely be better relationships, more positive parenting and a more cooperative marriage or separation.

If you’d like to learn more about Maggie, you can check out her web site at maggiebakerphd.com.  If you order Crazy About Money through the site, she’ll send you a signed copy along with a bookmark and a money awareness exercise.

Divorce on TV

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across the sitcom, Happily Divorced, online.  I vaguely remember hearing about the show before it aired.  Intrigued by the title, I watched a couple episodes.  The gist of the show is simple:  husband confesses after many years of marriage that he’s gay.  He can’t afford to move out due to the economy, so they continue to live together while moving on after their divorce.  I wasn’t impressed, and it wasn’t just Fran Drescher’s voice that turned me off.  I thought there were too many jokes and not enough realistic struggle.  Of course, I only watched 2.5 episodes… it might have gotten better as the season wore on.  If anyone knows for sure, please tell me in the comment section.

Another “divorce” TV show that was popular for many years was Reba.  Again, I only watched one or two episodes (years ago), but I liked it.  On Reba’s show, she played a divorcee and mother of three/grandmother of one.  Her ex-husband left her for a younger woman and he and the OW were very much involved in the lives of Reba and her children.  That one gave me a few genuine laughs.

My favorite (I think.  For now anyway.) TV program featuring a divorced couple is The New Adventures of Old Christine.  This one featured Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a divorced mother, living with her younger brother (actually, her brother lives with her) while her ex-husband has moved on with a younger “New Christine”.  Admittedly, I probably like this one the best because I watched it the most.  I appreciate the humorous way Christine blunders about in the dating world as well as the mommy circles.  I like the obvious connection that remains between Christine and her ex.  It’s all very genuine as well as amusing.

Of course, I appreciate all of these entertainment options because they display a respectful and cooperative relationship between exes, even on the heels of a betrayal.  The children on these shows enjoy presence and positive relationships with both parents.  They aren’t coached to hate, they aren’t asked to pass notes.  It’s beautiful.

Ani Difranco once said, “Art may imitate life, but life imitates TV.”  As divorce gains more exposure in our society, I hope this statement holds true.

So… what TV programs did I miss?  I know there has to be more out there that are set in the wake of a separation.  What’s your favorite?

What *Is* A “Broken Home”?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the various ways parental alienation can take place.  In that post, I linked to a rather disturbing audio track which displayed how alienation can be initiated while a marriage is still “intact”.  The video has since been revised and you can see the newest version here:

In the comment thread of the original post, the creator of the video made a statement which was quite profound.  I considered his content from a new perspective when he said,

…why didn’t I walk away earlier from somebody so obviously abusive? The answer in part is my religious background, where divorce is heavily frowned upon, and in part my desire not to have my kids grow up in a “broken home.” What I now realize in retrospect is that my home was already broken.

His home was already broken.  How many couples endure abuse, depression and isolation because they want to spare their children the trauma of a “broken home”?  In the past, I’ve written to say that I don’t believe in “broken homes” as they relate to divorce.  But I hadn’t thought of the phrase in relation to marriage.

I think I was wrong.  We shouldn’t discard the terminology but rather rethink the meaning and give it a new application.  “Broken” typically means that something needs to be fixed.  I think that definition can easily apply to any household, regardless of marital status.

I realize I’m making a scary proposition.  Who among the proud married folk wants to look within and see that something is wrong?  It’s much easier to point outward and say “Divorce is wrong!”  I understand.  I spent some time in that mindset, albeit briefly.  Unfortunately, if one can’t see what’s truly broken,  it’s kinda hard to fix it.

Bottom line:  if kids are hearing Mom and Dad say things like, “you’re worse than Satan”, it’s a bad situation.

Parental Conflict: Recipe and Resolution

Last week, I wrote about the lies kids tell, and why they tell them.  For personal reasons, the topic is still on my mind (or, on my mind again) this week.  I’ll spare everyone the rabid details of my family drama, but I do want to address some of the issues at play… 

Control:  Many divorced parents put their children in control (although they probably don’t think of it that way) because they don’t want to deal with each other:

  • “tell your dad to bring you home early”
  • “tell your mom you have a violin lesson tomorrow at 2pm”
  • “make sure you do X, Y and Z this weekend”

Such actions effectively hand over all power to the children and they are free to manipulate the situation toward any number of outcomes, voluntarily or otherwise: 

  • Jenny conveniently “forgets” to tell Daddy that she needs to be home earlier than usual
  • Ethan tells Mommy about his violin lesson at 2:15pm while they’re visiting Grandma in another town
  • Emily does X and Y but not Z.  When Mom questions her actions, Emily lies and says, “Daddy wouldn’t let me” 

In any case, Mom and Dad end up mad at each other and their kids are stuck in the middle (or forgotten and off to the side). Some children will continuously capitalize on such opportunities (to get what they want, avoid punishment, reunite their parents, etc) while others feel powerless and live in fear of messing up and creating chaos.  Wouldn’t it be easier if Mom and Dad were in control?

Co-Parent Team: It’s imperative to present a united front to the kids so they know they cannot manipulate either to turn on the other.  As far as the kids should know, Mom and Dad are on the same team: 

  • Mom and Dad both love their children (this is an important one!)
  • Mom and Dad both want the homework to be done.
  • Mom and Dad are both interested in the kids’ activities
  • Mom and Dad are both concerned about safety
  • Mom and Dad both want the kids to have fun
  • Mom and Dad might have different rules in their houses, but each supports the other while the kids are in that home

Controlling Emotions:  SCREAMING REAL LOUD does not mean a person is “superior”.  It doesn’t mean that party is “winning”.  It is indicative of a loss of self-control and there’s nothing admirable about that.

Respect:  Shouting, name-calling, put-downs, etc are all popular tactics when it comes to conflict.  Unfortunately, these weapons serve little purpose beyond stroking the ego of the person on the offense.  True communication cannot take place without a consistent flow of respect between the stakeholders.  If Mom and Dad don’t model respect for their children, what will their children learn about respect?  What will the children learn about resolving conflict?

…I’ve been told there’s a lot that I don’t understand because I haven’t given birth.  But in this case, I think my lack of Parental Filter allows me to see things a little more clearly.  In general, am I wrong about any of this?

Lies Kids Tell

Several months ago, Boyfriend and I dropped the kids off with their mother on a typical Sunday night and went about our business of running errands.  While we were in the local home improvement store, his phone rang.  It was his ex.  She was furious because Drake told her that we left him alone at the ski resort we’d been to and he was assaulted by a gang of teenagers.  She wanted to know why we would abandon the children in such a large place and why he didn’t tell her about the horrendous incident.

Boyfriend was flabbergasted.  We hadn’t left the kids alone.  They were never out of our sight for more than a few seconds.  As he explained to her, we start together and we end together.  Every slope, every time.

She persisted.  But he insisted:  Drake was lying.

Instead of volleying the accusations, Boyfriend switched gears and asked her a question:  “What happened before he told you this story?”

His ex explained that the boys bounded into the house like animals.  They were loud and proud and wanted to brag about their increased snowboarding skills.  When she told them they needed to calm down, the tears started started flowing and the story spewed forth.

This was an easy one for me to decode because I remembered the game from my own childhood.  I vividly recall feigning injury to avoid punishment.  What mother can resist the tears of her child?

For Drake, his story came with a bonus.  He was able to deflect Mom’s disappointment away from himself while presenting her with a new target for her irritation: a villain she loved to hate.  Drake was no longer causing a disruption in the house.  Instead, he was the innocent victim of poor parenting.  Drake is a smart kid.  He’s successfully used this tactic several times.

Kids with divorced parents have also been known to say things simply to boost a parent’s ego.  Little lies such as “I don’t like him/her” or “I don’t like it there” can accomplish that pretty easily.  Divorced parents take great pride in being better and preferred, and their kids know it.

Yet another motive (and you might disagree) is to arouse conflict between Mom and Dad.  As backwards as it sounds, parental conflict can be a comfort to children.  For one thing, it means that Mom and Dad are passionately engaged.  And for kids who long for their parents to be “together”, arguments might be preferable to cold distance (if you care enough to fight about it, it means you care, period.).  Fighting can also be reminiscent of the marriage and therefore it’s familiar and somewhat soothing.

The psychology behind this stuff is rather fascinating.  Parents and stepparents, realize this can be a natural part of the process for kids.  Recognize the internals struggles that drive their deceit.  Help to guide them and calm their anxieties.  Communicate love and acceptance even when you’re angry…

…and don’t be so quick to fall for all that BS 😉

Movie: Mrs. Doubtfire

I saw Mrs. Doubtfire in the theater when it was released in 1993.  At that time, I watched the story through the eyes of a child with divorced parents.  I thought it was a nice story, and a funny one.  But there was a lot that I didn’t understand.  Yet.

For those who don’t know, Mrs. Doubtfire is a movie featuring Robin Williams as a divorced dad who is unhappy with his custody situation.  In a desperate attempt to spend more time with his children, he dresses as a woman and lands a job as his ex wife’s housekeeper. During this time, he also has a front-row seat to watch the new Stepdad Figure move in to fill his shoes.

I watched the movie again over the weekend with Boyfriend and the kids.  And this time, I saw it from a different perspective.

This time, I was crushed when the family court denied custody to Daniel Hillard because he didn’t have a job or an apartment.  The apartment aside, I’ve heard of many women being awarded custody on the basis that they do not have a job and therefore will be more present to care for the children.

This time, I was enraged when Miranda Hillard arrived an hour early to pick up the kids from their once-a-week visit with their father.  As the three children stood up from the dinner table to rush out and meet their mother, I heard the pain in Mr. Hillard’s voice when he instructed them to sit down and shouted “you’re my goddamn kids too!”  …And then I noticed Mrs. Hillard’s sense of entitlement and superiority when she burst into the apartment without knocking and demanded that “her” children leave with her immediately.

This time, I recognized the rejection felt by the man disguised as Mrs. Doubtfire as he sat at a bar and pounded beers while watching his family frolic at a country club pool with his ex’s new suitor.

In seeing the movie again, I was able to understand and sympathize with both parents in addition to the kids.  I identified multiple facets of the divorce process which I was too ignorant to observe nearly twenty years ago.  And I was able to make note of the messages sent through the screen:

  • “Different” does not equal “unfit”
  • “Desperate times call for desperate measures”
  • It not appropriate to disparage another parent in front of the kids.  And it’s not a laughing matter.
  • Respectful interaction between parents makes things easier for everyone.
  • Life goes on.
The next time you’re searching for an appropriate Family Movie Night Flick, might I suggest Mrs. Doubtfire?

Alienation: It’s Not Always What You Think

The following video was linked in a comment on a previous post about Parental Alienation Syndrome.  I found it so moving that I was inspired to feature it in a new post.

When people think of parental alienation, the image that comes to mind is one of Mom or Dad constantly trash-talking the absent parent in front of his/her offspring.  But that’s not always how it happens.

As you see in the video, the process of alienation can begin before a couple separates.  This is one of the reasons I feel so strongly that divorce can be a positive change for a family- that is, as long as Mom and Dad are able to handle their separation in a responsible manner.

Another way that kids are taught to believe one parent is “bad” is through non-verbal signals.  Alienators can send a loud and clear message simply by making a face or turning away in a dismissive manner when a child mentions the other parent.

Transition times present another opportunity for alienators to communicate their feelings.  Imagine Mom acting extremely sad or panicked when Dad picks up the kids for the weekend.  Imagine Dad telling his children that he’s “relieved” they made it home from their mother’s house.  Given such a sendoff or homecoming, how is a child supposed to feel confident loving and visiting both parents?

It’s important to remember that children are extremely sensitive and perceptive.  And although alienation may not always be intentional, it is always painful.  Please don’t forget the lasting impact of the little things, and share this message to raise awareness in others.