Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Now, who remembers this moment from 2018?
Prince Harry: I, Harry, take you, Meghan, to be my wife for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, till death us do part.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, I love a good wedding, but I admit I snort-chuckle laugh to hear a prince vow to love his bride for richer or poor. In the case of the royals, one outcome is exceedingly more likely than the other. For those of us who still make it paycheck-to-paycheck, love and money can be more complicated to navigate. While the finances of the crown are a matter of public record, many of us prefer to live in love with a little bit more of a, "My bank account is my business" approach.
In a new series called Financial Therapy, the podcast, Death, Sex & Money explores how we commoners can get past our fiscal angst and create more honest intimate relationships. Like The Takeaway, Death, Sex & Money is produced by WNYC studios. The Financial Therapy series centers on a couple they refer to as Cora and Garrett. Garrett works as a construction worker and was fired multiple times during the pandemic. These job losses eventually contributed to his gambling addiction, to significant debt, and to some major stress in the couple's marriage.
To help them work through some of their issues, the Death, Sex & Money team connected Cora and Garrett with a financial therapist named Amanda Clayman. Here's part of a conversation the couple had with Amanda.
Garrett: I get vacation checks, which is a very awesome perk of my job. It's commensurate to how much time you've worked. I did feel a little reluctant giving that over, I'm just saying.
Cora: Well, we talked about that, and then you made a choice.
Garrett: Yes, that I took a percentage of the money and I invested it.
Cora: Which is not something that I was super comfortable with, but we talked about having an amount of money that he could do what he wanted with, like donate it to charity or invest it, or spend it on donuts. [chuckles]
Melissa Harris-Perry: I spoke with Anna Sale, the host of Death, Sex & Money.
Anna Sale: Financial therapy is distinct from therapy, and distinct from something like financial advising. It's basically therapy with a focus on the stories we tell ourselves and the emotions that well-up when we deal with money. The licensed clinical social worker who we worked with on this series, Amanda Clayman, she likes to say that money is both a symbol and a tool. It is these two things at once, and so you have to deal with money in both those lenses, both as what it means to us, all of our feelings about it, the histories we have with it, and then the choices we have to make as we deal with money and use it as a tool.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes. We think of things like, "Oh, are you good with money? Are you bad with money?" It's not just along a continuum of good and bad, right?
Anna Sale: No. All of us bring so many different stories with us with how we deal with money. We have different cultures around money in our families of origin. We have different belief systems. Then we react to stresses in really different ways. Some people react with putting their head in the sand in a sense of denial. Other people get hypervigilant and then very risk-averse and have a difficulty with the uncertainty that's part of dealing with any money decision. It's not, of course, not just about good and bad. It's about looking closely at your own money tendencies, what's working for you, and where you want to grow a little bit.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The pandemic has obviously been a mirror in so many ways for so many of us having to spend a lot of time with ourselves and understand our own motivations. I'm wondering how the pandemic might've also impacted, not only individuals but in this case adult couples and how they talk or don't talk about money.
Anna Sale: Yes, that's what we wanted to take a very close look at with this series, because if you think about money, it's always a stressful thing that we've got to figure out in our relationships, how we're going to navigate it together. Then this time of pandemic has just been this pressure cooker where you're confronted with a lack of stability, a lack of certainty, maybe job loss in your family. Then you're in close quarters in some situations with your partner. What you could have maybe dealt with a little less heightened emotion, just got turned up because you're just in each other's faces all the time.
The couple that we followed in the series, what happened was they both had some pandemic-related job losses. One is as a teacher and an artist. The other is a welder in work construction. Both lost work. The husband, who we called Garrett, it's those stresses led him to lean into his addictive behaviors, first with alcohol, and then also with online gambling, which led to them being tens of thousands of dollars in debt that he kept secret from his wife until an emotional crisis revealed it all, and they had to deal with the aftermath.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's just take out a moment and listen to a snippet from DSM on that.
Cora: I think my fear is this fear of seeing you go out of control when it comes to money or spending, or choosing to do things that piqued an interest in the addict part of your brain, and then I don't trust my own trust, and then that becomes distrust.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There we have Cora speaking with Garrett during one of their financial therapy sessions. Can you tell us a bit more about the ways that they were engaging these questions in therapy?
Anna Sale: Yes. In what happened in their marriage is as a result of Garrett getting into this hole of gambling that he was keeping secret. It led to a real crisis where he actually attempted to take his life, and that's how Cora found out. She found him in crisis. He went to the hospital and then they had to deal with, not only the fact of this debt that they now had but also the secrets that Garrett was keeping from her leading up to it.
You hear her there talking about trust. Of course, that's one of the big things underlying how we deal with money in our relationships, is that in a relationship where you share resources, you've got to be able to feel like you can trust your partner to look out for you and not betray you, not keep things from you. That was not the case in their marriage. You hear them talking with Amanda Clayman, the therapist, about why that was and how to change that pattern.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Amanda Clayman is, as you've pointed out here, the financial therapist who spoke with Cora and Garrett for your series. Let's take out and listen to her explaining her approach to therapy.
Amanda Clayman: I can't remember if I've shared my philosophy with you before, which is that money often points us toward those places in our lives, or in our relationship, where we most need to grow and heal. It's like, Cora, you shared the news, "Hey, we've paid off the credit card." You had a particular emotional response to that, which was happiness and pride and wanting to share that, not just be in that by yourself, but wanting to reach out to Garrett and share that with him. The feeling that you got back from Garrett was that he was not in that boat with you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What was it that Amanda really identified here as the places where Cora and Garrett's relationship needed to heal?
Anna Sale: Well, I love that moment so much for two reasons. First of all, the details of that moment are Cora was celebrating that they had made incremental progress in getting out of their debt, and had paid off a credit card. She looked to Garrett to celebrate with her, and he was like, "Yes, but we've got all this other debt still to go." What's revealed in that conversation they have with Amanda is that Garrett is still carrying around a lot of shame about what happened, and so he doesn't feel like he can celebrate the incremental victories.
Cora's looking to him saying like, "How are we going to get through this if you don't partner with me and just cheering us along?" What I love about what Amanda says there is that money is a thing that helps us point to where we need to grow, where we need to heal together. I think that that's a really important underlying theme of this whole series.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's interesting you used the language of shame here. When I think about the idea of someone having suicidal ideations, or making an attempt on their own life because of debt, that is never just about the money. That is so much about the shame in that sense of a failing, of being unable to face it. Yet intimacy is all about being willing to show all your jiggly bits, all your ugly parts, all the parts that are shameful in the rest of the world. I'm wondering how a financial crisis connected to an emotional crisis might actually lead to deeper intimacy, more willing to share the parts of ourselves we're ashamed about?
Anna Sale: That's what was really interesting about being with Cora and Garrett while they were doing these sessions with Amanda, because Garrett was getting a lot of interventions because he'd had this mental health emergency. He was in his own care, his own mental health care. He also was in different recovery groups dealing with this. What their time with Amanda really provided was this forum to say money is this thing that we are going to have to continue to deal with as a couple together. It was a big part of what led to this crisis, so we need to look right at money together. They did that together.
When you talk about financial intimacy, the thing that Amanda talks about, which I just love is it's often around money where we have little skirmishes and sometimes big conflicts with our partners. Amanda talks about those moments rather than being fights that you need to figure out how to avoid, as opportunities to get a little bit more clarity about what your partner is bringing into the relationship when it comes to their feelings about money. She talks about really trying to tolerate the discomfort of conflict, because it creates this opportunity for more understanding and more intimacy.
Melissa Harris-Perry: One of the realities of my own life is that I keep journals. I've kept journals since I was adolescent. If I go back and read them all literally 40 years worth of journals nearly at this point, basically at all points, I'm trying to pay off some credit card debt, and it all points I'm trying to lose 20 pounds. It really doesn't matter how much money I make.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This has been true what I made, $1,200 a year and $120,000 a year, more and less and all of those things in between, so I get the ways in which money is not really just about money. It's about all of these other realities of who we are. I got to tell you what works for me is avoidance. I keep a happy marriage by not talking about money. What does it mean to try to go straight into the center of this thing?
Anna Sale: Well, if avoidance works for you, that's great.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I feel like you've picked up some therapy experience here.
Anna Sale: I just want to say it. There's a lot of different ways that couples can make dealing with money work for them. One is, you have your money, I have my money, and we're going to love each other while we separately deal with our own money. That's a totally valid choice. If you're in a relationship like Cora and Garrett where you do share resources, and where you have a interdependence and commitment that you've made to one another about how you're going to manage that money, then when there's an instance of betrayal in their marriage, it's something that is big.
It's a betrayal just like any other betrayal, so that needs repair. That needs looking at it, looking at what happened, holding yourselves accountable for what broke down, and trying to build back something that's going to keep it from happening again.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering if you think financial therapy is valuable for folks who aren't in a circumstance quite as dramatic as Cora and Garrett, where there isn't necessarily such a strong sense of betrayal but there might be some really different styles and really different approaches and meanings and emotions that money is connected to.
Anna Sale: Well, here's the big secret, Melissa, is that one of the reasons we love this series is because-- that I love it is because I get so much out of it. I haven't had a huge crisis around money in my marriage, but I have a lot of disagreements with my husband when it comes to money. Often with money, because it hits right on those survival instincts and sense of safety, and our own personalities and relationships to risk, it can be really hard to look at your partner who might be bringing a different point of view on money and say, "Oh, I see what you're thinking here. Let's open this up."
Often, the instinct is to say, "I'm not sure that that's right. I think I'm right and you're wrong, and so we're going to battle over this." I think that the template that Amanda provides is to open up our own money feelings and issues as these stories that we carry around each of us, and to compare notes with our partners to see a little closer and more clearly, again , like, "Oh, this is why you believe this way? Okay, I see that.
However, maybe I disagree about what we should be doing when it comes to this particular financial decision, but I'm not going to attack you as just being wrong. I'm going to see where you're coming from, and then we're going to try to work together to come to a decision."
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm also wondering a little bit about not only the individual psychological constructs around money and our emotions around it, but also the kind of social constructs around it. In all of the cases, in your marriage, in my marriage, in Cora and Garrett's, these are heterosexual marriages where there might also be gendered expectations related to men as providers or these notions about men and money.
I'm wondering if, when we look at marriages, where both spouses are of the same gender, or if we look at marriages where maybe there is an age differential. Any of those things where these kinds of social constructions about who is supposed to be doing what with money based on some big broad social norm rather than just our own psychology and family history, if that also complicates even the capacity for the individual financial therapy to intervene?
Anna Sale: I don't know that it limits its ability to intervene, but I think you're absolutely right that there's both our own individual psychological roadmaps that we bring to money. Then there's also so many other ways in which power asserts itself in our relationships, maybe our own relationship to how we see the other, depending on gender differences or class differences in our families of origin and age differences.
There's all sorts of ways we bring act different expectations. I think that financial therapy is not just about saying, "Oh, this is your personality around money, so let's approach it with this particular psychological construct," but also inviting in those larger structural narratives that we carry around with us, because it's not either or. It's both and in each of us.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Anna Sale is that the host of the podcast, Death, Sex, & Money from WNYC studios. Anna, thank you so much.
Anna Sale: Oh, thanks for doing this with us.
Melissa Harris-Perry: If you want to hear Anna's recent series on financial therapy, first, get yourself a couch, lay out, and then go to deathsexmoney.org/financialtherapy.
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