Dear Therapist:

I have been pushing off writing this, which maybe is part of the problem, but I feel like at this point I really need to. A few years ago, my husband was making a very nice living which caused us to raise our standards of living significantly. Now unfortunately, like I imagine many others are, we are feeling the crunch of the economy. Baruch Hashem, we have what we need but we can no longer afford to spend like we used to. We have been pushing off making the big changes but the burden of expenses is crushing at this point. I just can't seem to pull the trigger. To say nothing of the fact that my husband won't even have a conversation about this and snaps at me whenever I bring this up. I know you are not financial advisors, and I don't really think we need that, it seems pretty obvious the moves we need to make. I guess I am hoping you could help with the emotional component whether for myself, my husband, and our kids. Thank you. 



You mentioned that you have been pushing this issue off. I don’t know how long it took you to come to your conclusion, but it sounds like you are now ready to let go of some of the things that raised your standard of living. Since every person is unique in their needs, triggers, and insecurities, no two people will emotionally react in the exact same way to the same circumstance. However, there are some emotions and reactions that can be largely generalized.

The reason that people have trouble letting go of the high lifestyle is directly related to their need to obtain it in the first place. Why do some of us “need” a fancy house or an expensive car more than do others? What makes some of us feel depressed at the prospect of lowering our standard of living, while others are able to feel simply disappointed?

For the most part, the answers to these questions have their basis in self-esteem. Imagine that I don’t feel very good about myself. I was never able to feel like I was good enough or that I was worth much. I may have tried to feel good about various accomplishments, but ultimately these always fell short. Regardless of the nature of any achievement or how I initially felt about it, over time it became clear that I still didn’t feel good about myself.

In an emotionally money-driven society, the message is consistently the same: The more money you have—or appear to have—the more value you have as a person. Terms like, “Do you know what he’s worth?” constantly reinforce this theme. As an insecure person, I fully buy into this, and try to feel good about myself based on what others believe that I have (what I’m “worth”). Although each time I obtain something significant I feel a boost in my sense of self, this is fleeting. I eventually feel exactly the same about myself as when I began. Now, however, I’ve raised the bar, requiring ever more significant accomplishments to achieve the same high. I’m caught up in this cycle where I continue to base my sense of self on money and its proxies despite the  increasing need for it—and the resultant unhappiness.

Your need to define yourself based on money or based on what others think of your level of wealth may never have been as strong as your husband’s. Or perhaps you were better able to separate your logical recognition of the situation from your emotional needs. Regardless of the reason, at this point you are in a place where you can accept the reality of your financial situation. Your husband may simply need some more time to come to the same conclusions.

I don’t know in what ways you have tried to approach this issue with him. When you attempt to broach the subject, he may feel like you are blaming him. Or—related but perhaps worse—he may feel like you are judging him. If this is the case, these conversations might be intensifying his sense that what he most needs is the one thing that he thinks will make him feel good about himself—money, or the appearance of having it.

If you believe that something like this is preventing your husband from being able to discuss your finances, being sensitive to this in your approach and the nature of your conversation can alleviate some of his reticence.        

You mentioned your children and your concern about their reaction to lifestyle changes. I don’t know how old they are or anything else about them, so I can only speak to this generally. Children—and especially younger ones—will generally take their cues from their parents. These cues can be verbal and apparent, or they can be mood-based and obscure.

On a surface level, being obvious about the importance and significance of money and possessions can give children the wrong message. On a deeper level, emotionally accentuating the value of our possessions can give children a similar sense on a more subliminal level. This is usually worse because it allows them a lesser ability to consciously consider and challenge these notions.

Of course, your husband will need to face facts sooner or later. It is important to also consider the impact of his and your reactions on the kids. Both your husband and you seem to be placing emotional emphasis on the value of your lifestyle. It is likely this (much more than the actual impact of a smaller house or fewer vacations) that you most need to address.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

  Woodmere, NY

  adjunct professor at Touro College

  Graduate School of Social Work

  author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 516-218-4200


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