It was early in her career that Michelle Fait, who now heads Satori Financial in San Francisco, first experienced working with a couple who openly fought in front of her. It seemed the husband expected their children to fund more of their college educations than the wife did. After three sessions of fighting, Fait was finally able to ask some questions that helped each spouse understand—and empathize with—the other’s position, and they came to a compromise. But it was an eye-opening experience. “I realized that while I had loads of training, I’d learned little about mediating conflicts,” she says. “Of all the tools in my toolbox, helping them through this wasn’t one of them.”
Money is one of the most contentious issues in a marriage. In addition, people’s attitudes towards financial matters tend to be shaped by long-standing, deep-rooted childhood experiences. Yet, most advisors aren’t trained to deal with such issues. And that makes for an uncomfortable situation. If you intervene, you run the risk of alienating one or both spouses. Fail to act decisively, however, and you may never be able to provide your clients with adequate advice.
But as Fait learned, there are techniques for handling these arguments and, in the process, solidifying your relationship:
Stay neutral. Remain objective and never take sides. “The couple is your client, not the individuals,” says Neil Van Zutphen, president of Intrinsic Wealth Counsel in Tempe, Ariz. Plus, you’re almost guaranteed to exacerbate the tension if one spouse feels you’re favoring the other one.
Reframe. If the couple keeps on arguing and it isn’t getting anyone anywhere, don’t close your eyes and hope it all goes away. “You want to interrupt that cycle before it spins out of control,” says Megan Ford, a marriage and family counselor and president of the Financial Therapy Association. First, acknowledge there’s a disagreement. Then, you can try a few techniques aimed at reframing the discussion. For example, there’s the open-ended question approach, where you summarize the main point each spouse is making, following it up with a non-threatening query inviting them to dig a little deeper. (That means no “yes” or “no” questions.) Often, this is the time to start exploring how the spouses’ own families handled relevant money issues when they were growing up.
Or, there’s the incremental approach. Vicki Adams, a financial advisor in Manhattan Beach, Calif., recalls a husband who, a few years ago, wanted his wife, a well-paid radiologist, to quit her job and run a hot dog concession. Through a series of impartial questions, each leading logically to the next, Adams managed to bring the man around to understand his spouse’s objections. He dropped the idea.
Take a break. A heated fight can quickly take on a life of its own, making rational discourse impossible. “Our bodies are flooded with hormones, and our ability to behave rationally is diminished,” says Ford. In that case, suggest the couple take a 10-minute break.
In some cases, you can meet with each spouse separately, particularly if one partner clearly dominates the other. “You get to the heart of the issue in a way you couldn’t otherwise,” says Taylor Schulte, CEO of Define Financial in San Diego. He points to a couple who met with him several years ago to create a retirement plan. In the course of three meetings, the husband, in no uncertain terms, discussed his intention to sell their home or rent it, then live off the proceeds; it always led to bickering. When Schulte finally suggested scheduling separate meetings, he learned that, for the wife, staying in her house was vitally important. It turned out, the husband didn’t know that. He agreed to form a different plan.
Seek professional advice. When in doubt, get some real training. For example, the Financial Therapy Association runs webinars on communication techniques for financial planners. Some advisors take courses in mediation.
Another approach: About six months ago, after sitting through a few hair-raising fights, Holly Thomas, an advisor in Tampa, decided to ask a therapist for advice. He suggested having what she calls a “meta discussion” by asking the couple whether such arguments were common when discussing this topic. “We have a conversation about the conversation,” she says. “It helps to move them along, out of the place they’re stuck.”