The No. 1 danger of not talking about money with your partner, according to Showtime therapist

FAN Editor

Orna Guralnik

Source: Showtime

Not long after I began working as a personal finance reporter at CNBC in 2018, I started psychoanalysis. The form of therapy had long intrigued me, with the intensity of its three sessions a week and its search for answers among our dreams and pasts.

Because I’d heard that psychoanalysis was ridiculously expensive, however, I figured my main exposure to it would be in New Yorker cartoons. Then a friend from graduate school told me about The William Alanson White Institute on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where analysts in training saw patients for as little as $15 a session. Thinking back on it now, it was probably something similar to what had driven me to study journalism that landed me on the couch in my early 20s — an abiding feeling that the stories people tell leave a lot out.

Over the next few years, my sessions with my psychoanalyst helped me to be more understanding as I reported on the money issues people faced. I was realizing how wide the gap could be between what we know we should do with money and what we actually do. What else could explain why, even as I wrote stories about the risks of credit card debt, I often put too much on my own cards? Or why, even as I explained to readers the massive benefits of starting to save early, I found myself delaying doing so?

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These are the types of mysteries that psychoanalyst Orna Guralnik tries to solve for her patients. When I first saw Guralnik’s documentary series “Couples Therapy” on Showtime, in which she provides therapy to real patients in a room with hidden cameras, I couldn’t look away. Despite how confounding or even hopeless the situation between the two people before her appeared, Guralnik was again and again able to draw connections and make observations that made them rethink the stories they were telling about themselves and each other.

As a personal finance reporter, I can make the answers sound easy. Take these steps to get out of debt. Do these things to stop overspending. What interests me most about the sessions with Guralnik is how she stays away from advice. Instead, she asks questions that take her deeper and deeper into the lives of the people on her couch.

I wanted to ask her about relationships and money, and got the chance to do so at the end of April, just when the new episodes of Season three of “Couples Therapy” premiered. (Our interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

‘Money is a very important point of contact with reality’

Annie Nova: How hard is it for people to talk about money?

Orna Guralnik: Very hard. It takes a long time in treatment to get into it. Sometimes, I find people are more private about money than their sex life.

AN: Why do you think that is?

OG: In American society, money locates you in the social structure more than anything else. It really puts you in your place. If you want to go deeper, a lot hangs on money in terms of people’s self-worth. Who are they in comparison to the people around them? You could give it Oedipal meanings. Did they manage to surpass their parents, or not?

AN: What do people risk by avoiding talking about money with you?

OG: Money is a very important point of contact with reality. People can have all sorts of fantasies and ideas about themselves. But money is feedback from the real world. So, when we don’t talk about money, we’re shielding ourselves from knowing reality.

AN: And what’s the danger there?

OG: It’s risky business. You can’t take care of yourself if you don’t deal with reality. We learn from reality. We grow from reality. If we defend against it, if we’re so fragile and anxious that we don’t want reality, we get stuck. And ultimately, we kind of crumble inward. Reality is good.

AN: Any advice for people who tend to avoid their financial realities?

OG: I’m a psychoanalyst. Our advice is always, ‘Open up inward. Be honest with yourself.’ Pain is OK. You can withstand the pain. Ignoring the problem or defending against it is ultimately more painful than the truth.

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AN: What are the biggest differences around money for couples?

OG: People know how to be different about so many things. Some people are frugal and can lean towards the obsessive side. Some people do not have any impulse control, and they hate thinking about the future. So, any conversation about budgeting or planning is excruciating.

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AN: My father would often joke, ‘When money doesn’t come through the door, love goes out the window.’ Do you see couples break up over financial issues?

OG: From my perspective, the breakup is not about money. The breakup is about not being able to negotiate differences. Money is one of those touchstones with reality that can make it very clear that the two can’t agree or can’t find a way to problem-solve together.

AN: At one point in the new batch of episodes, one couple — Kristi and Brock — say they’re concerned that a big reason they’re moving in together is to save money. Presumably, they’ll be splitting rent and expenses. It seems like money can be just another way couples help each other, but the subject seems to get fraught so quickly. What do you make of their fear?

OG: Kristi and Brock are idealists, and I love them for that. For them, doing something for financial reasons compromises their idealistic spirit. They believe they should be moving in for love, not financial easement. But the idea that marriage is a response to love is a pretty modern idea. Marriage has always been, first of all, a way to create a structure that protects people. It is there to protect the financial unit. So, I’m cool with the fact that finances are a part of the reason people are together.

‘People may overspend as a kind of protest’

AN: When people talk about their financial issues, how do you respond to them differently as a psychoanalyst than you would if you were another type of therapist?

OG: It’s a great question. As a psychoanalyst, my general way of approaching things is with the belief that concrete realities are tied to unconscious realities. And so we’re always looking for what else is informing a concrete symptom. For example, I had a patient who hoarded money. And we discovered through analysis that, for her, money stood for time. By hoarding money, in her unconscious mind, she was protecting herself against death.

AN: On the other end of hoarding, a lot of people overspend.

OG: Sure. People may overspend as a kind of protest. “Why should I be limited? I’ve suffered so much in my childhood; I deserve reparations.” People also overspend because they live in fantasy. By creating a kind of movie life, they’re trying to protect themselves from the pain of reality.

AN: When someone becomes aware of what they’re doing with money, how do they translate that awareness into change?

OG: It becomes harder to lie to oneself. You can’t unsee those kinds of things, and people then do change their relationship to money. That’s one of the things that often happens to people in analysis: They get a lot more real about money.

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