When Money Masks Couples' Real Problems

Love, Self

In relationships, financial conflict might actually be about something deeper.

My poor cousin Dan. A middle-aged joker with a surprising spiritual bent, he'd been single a long time when he met… well, let's call her Lynn. It was great, he said, to be intimate with someone again. They saw each other every day, and within a couple months they were living together. But even on their first date, Dan remembers, there were signs: all the talk about the Lexus or Infiniti she wanted; all that food she ordered and didn't eat. Nevertheless, he felt good about the agreed-upon plan for sharing his place, which he owned. Lynn would pay $500 for rent, about half of what she'd been paying on her own, and they'd split everything else.

Within a year, though, things changed. The first time Lynn said she had no money to contribute that month—despite her midlevel job for a heath insurer that had her jetting around the Pacific Northwest—Dan said it was fine. "Stuff like that happens," he told her. "Just don't make a habit of it." But she did, all the while coming up with unconvincing excuses involving travel reimbursements that never showed up. "I thought, is she doing drugs?" Dan remembers. "Gambling? No, that wasn't her style. I'd beg her to give me a good reason. I wanted a reason more than I wanted the $500."

In the end, he called it quits, and, in the process, learned the truth: For years, while her debts mounted, Lynn had been buying things—mostly clothes, which she'd pack away and never wear. When she finally moved out of Dan's house, he found six fur coats stored in one closet. Another room was full of brand-new items of all kinds, "literally from the floor to the ceiling." She never came back to pick it all up.

"It helped," Dan confessed, "when I first heard the term 'compulsive shopper.'"

Not that he, an inveterate non-shopper, could really identify—but he could sense that they'd broken up over something far more painful and psychologically ingrained than poor money management skills. "One time she said to me, 'I feel like I'm nothing,'" Dan remembers, flooded with sympathy. "It was like when she bought something, she was trying to increase her presence in the world."

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