One way that we medicate or avoid feeling anxiety around money is financial denial. We may deny the consequences of our behavior or deny that reality—like overwhelming debt or other financial difficulties—even exists. Someone in financial denial is really struggling to accept something that is super stressful and just overwhelming to their system. Denial can be very effective in shutting down difficult emotions in the short term, but unfortunately in the long term it can be incredibly destructive.
Financial denial can affect people regardless of their net worth or financial circumstances. It can really affect an individual’s financial wellbeing, and it can cause great harm in a coupleship. There are several ways that financial denial between partners can show up.
One is when both partners are in denial. This couple is often happier, at least in the short term. There’s no disagreement or friction because neither of them sees that there is a problem. Yet when the problem becomes a crisis, everything may fall apart, leaving them with limited or non-existent options.
I remember telling a couple where both were in denial, “You can choose to take action now when you both have some control and some options, or you can wait until this is a crisis and others make the decisions for you.” They waited. The crisis did come. They had no choices about the outcome and no way to avoid the consequences of their denial.
A second form of financial denial is when one partner wants to address financial reality and the other partner does not. There is continual friction in the coupleship. It may be about a specific issue, like one partner wanting to do estate planning and the other resisting, or it may be about broader issues like debt, lifestyle, or overspending. It’s common for partners to have the same arguments over and over without being able to resolve anything. This dynamic actually brings a lot of couples to financial therapy.
What can happen is that the partner not in denial sees the denying partner as “the problem” who is wrong. Unfortunately, a financial planner or financial therapist (especially if they have not addressed their own emotional issues around money) may share this viewpoint. If the financial professional and the non-denying partner pair against the denying partner, this will just deepen the denial. Instead, it is crucial to understand that the partner who does not want to talk about financial facts is probably not doing so just to upset their partner. It’s more likely that the anxiety and difficult emotions are so overwhelming that parts of themselves just won’t let them go there. In fact, they may even be in such denial that they are not even aware they avoid thinking about financial difficulties.
In order to make lasting progress, it’s important for the financial professional to be willing to listen and to help both partners explore the overwhelming emotions and the good intention behind the denial. It’s also useful to consider that the partner who wants to address the problems may be driven by anxiety in the same way as the partner who is in denial.
A third dynamic is when one partner is in financial denial and the other partner sees the realities but does not want to address them. They may want to avoid conflict or confrontation, may have a pattern of deferring to the other partner, or may be enabling the denying partner out of love. I think such a couple might be in the most pain of all. The partner who sees reality but says nothing is probably suffering twice as much as the partner who is in denial.
Financial denial in a coupleship is complex. It requires a lot of understanding and compassion by both partners and financial professionals to help resolve the denial and move forward in a way that is financially empowering to everyone involved.
Check out The Financial Therapy Podcast by Rick Kahler concerning this topic.