Confrontation Options: Financial Irresponsibility

couple with therapist who confronts financial irresponsibility

“Many of us believe that wrongs aren’t wrong if done by nice people like ourselves.” Author Unknown.

At the risk of starting this blog sounding sexist, there are two common areas of regression I’ve seen in men and women over many years working with couples.

Women often dig in and want to be taken care of financially.

Men often regress and want to be taken care of at home. They may resist participating in household chores or child rearing.

Perhaps you’ve worked with a couple for a while and the husband says,  “She never sticks to our budget and she won’t participate in realistic financial decisions.”

His wife typically responds by saying,  “No matter what I do, it’s never enough. You’ll never be satisfied.”

He might continue to describe her unilateral extravagant spending as a problem and say that he’d like more collaboration. She may resist.

You’ve done some exploring and discovered that she does indeed have reckless spending habits.

So let’s look at some specific confrontations you might use with her.

Here are seven brief responses to her complaint and to her desire to stay regressed and disconnected from finances. Remember that unpacking a very entrenched position will probably take time and you will need to integrate a combination of these responses.

I’ve  listed a variety of choices. I start with some that are easier and create less anxiety for the client, and later I present some in which you intensify discomfort in the client as you challenge her regression more directly.

  1. Consider whether impulsive spending started in early childhood.  Ask, “Did you grow up rich or poor? Did you spend all your money as soon as you got it?”  Did she nurture herself materially because there was little other nurturance available to her?
  2. You might look for ways her experience as a child is now being replicated with her husband. “Is there someone in your family of origin who was always unsatisfied with you or what you did?”
  3. Also, ask about how hard she thinks it would be to learn more about money and investments. Does she have learning issues? Does she think she is too stupid to understand their finances? Or does she refuse to make the effort so that he will be forced to take care of her financially?
  4. To increase the tension a bit more, you can agree with her very factually. “That’s right, your husband is not likely to ever be satisfied. Your current financial involvement will never be enough as long as he wants a grown-up interdependent financial relationship with you.”
  5. Increasing the tension even more, you might confront the implications if he were indeed satisfied with her low involvement.
    Ask her about the implications if he were satisfied. “Is that more of a statement about him or you?”  In this case you are opening her up to viewing what the marriage might be like if she were infantilized and viewed as not having enough intelligence to participate as an equal partner.
  6. Next, you might want to illuminate what she does with her own anger. Is her spending part of a passive-aggressive pattern? “What do you feel when you hear him say you never do enough financial collaboration? What are your thoughts about him? And then what do you do to cope with how you feel about him?”
    Following this line may surface her silent but angry rebelliousness. You might tie this in with what you learned earlier. “Perhaps you hope for more nurturance from your husband and now nurture yourself the same way you did as a child. What you do now works well for you. You nurture yourself and get back at him the same way you were angry with your father.”
  7. And last, find out what the client wants from you. “What do you wish I would do?” This question will elicit the client’s transference to you and their unspoken wishes about how you might rescue them and nurture them. Does she hope you will support her? Does she want you to rescue her from the wrath of her parent/spouse. Is she creating a bind for you?

Perhaps support means that you will be a protective parent and get her husband off her back. Does she want you to  protect her from his disapproval, and make him leave her alone? Or perhaps support means that you go along with her request/demand that you not talk about her spending in therapy.

Either way, support to her may mean that you continue to support her regression. Throughout your exploration, explore her desire to stay regressed. Do it gently, allowing her to come to an understanding of why staying regressed seems best to her.

You will want to address both sides of this dilemma by saying something like, “I do want to support you and I don’t want to see you having to face your husband’s ongoing anger and frustration. Even worse, I hate to see you feeling inferior so often. On the other hand, I don’t want to see you working so hard to defend your inability to collaborate and your refusal to be more interdependent with your husband.”

Give her a moment and ask, “What do you think and feel about what I just said?”

  1. Now I have a challenge for you. Write just for yourself a series of possible confrontations of a partner who passively does not participate at home either with chores or child rearing. Take some time to think about this.
  2. Then, please join our ongoing conversation by  adding any other types of regression you’ve seen or found challenging.  Or share one way you confront someone who is “dug in” and defending their stubborn refusal to develop themselves on an issue.

This blog post is from a 5 day “mini-workshop” on confrontation.
Click Day 1: Confrontation Video: 6 Types of Confrontation and How the Cycle of Confrontation Unfolds
Click Day 2: Confrontation Transcript: Indecision after Infidelity
Click Day 3: Confrontation Video: Challenging Hypocrisy

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When I have encountered this scenario, the wife typically responds with “we could easily afford it. We are not short of money. He’s just being controlling”. And may also allude to the cost of the counselling.

Deb Hecker
Deb Hecker

To me, the foundation of your blog, Ellyn, is personal autonomy and the importance of an egalitarian relationship with one’s partner. Yes, our relationship with money is historically rooted. Money is a hot spot of contention between partners. Each person has to assume personal responsibility for their own ideas and management of money. It is very easy for one’s emotions to get played out in the context of money. Really, money and emotions are like oil and water. One needs to be mindful of the tendency to play out unmet emotional needs through the use of money. Careful Introspection about money can create personal growth.

Skyelar Napier
Skyelar Napier

i have worked with couples where the man is regressed and resents his female partner for always “stressing about money”. In such situations she earns significantly more than he does and is concerned with saving money for their future as well as ensuring that she is living the quality of life that is important to her (ability to take vacations etc.). He claims money is not “his priority” so feels no need to collaborate with her in her financial goals. Meanwhile he is more than happy to reap the benefits of her hard work and income. When I have confronted these types of partners, they quickly back-peddle and claim that they will try harder to “appreciate” their partner, etc. With these couples I find I have to focus more on the female partner in an effort to have her see how she is allowing his behaviour to continue. I find this kind of confrontation to be extremely challenging! In effect, I am working with a highly narcissistic client who is taking advantage of his partners need for love and affection… How does one break this pattern?

Anne O'Connor
Anne O'Connor

Ellyn, this focus on confrontation has been very helpful. I have listened to you do this with the learners in your training. Breaking it down to 6 types with the differing intensities really made a difference in the work I did today. I was able to use the soft to invite, the empathic to support and hold the person in the moment, the indirect to bring in the partners reaction and the gentle but tough to throw light on the stuck place. Exactly as you and Pete predicted I had confidence and softness because I knew where I was going. Thank you so much.

Inessa Mil'berg
Inessa Mil'berg

Could you please post replay of the first live session. Thank you

Paula Dennan
Paula Dennan

Thanks Ellyn for today’s blog on confrontation options. I can see how helpful using these specific examples could be when using them in other areas of irresponsibility. One area that crops up regularly in my work in sex therapy is the lack of responsibility taken with nurturing the sexual connection. One partner (not always gender stereotypical) complains there is not enough sexual connection. Initiation around sexuality is often left to this partner who often also reports having the higher desire. However connection is actually being “controlled” by the low desire partner.
Scanning the options you have in today’s presentation has allowed me to consider a variety of “graduated” choices to confront the partner who wishes to maintain the status quo, regressed and disconnected from the sexual relationship.
Perhaps they are seeing sexuality in a limited closed down way, rather than being open to consideingr the many layers of possible connection. Looking to that partner’s learning history, outing their fears if they did take more responsibility, supporting clearer differentiation of self and particularly from OTHER and holding that tension, exploring the ongoing implications of maintaining the (regressed) status quo, highlighting the feelings experienced when the high desire partner complains, exploring this in earlier relationship learning and confronting the unspoken hope – what the regressed partner wants you as the therapist to do, are all helpful strategies to exposing more clearly the blocks.
A challenge for me when working with such situations in the past has been to be overly mindful of the issue of sexual consent – which can accidentally facilitate colluding with the low desire partner. Deepening understanding (using the I2I) of why the regressed partner holds that position, what they aspire to be as a sexually connected partner, what has to change in order for them to move out of that position towards their aspirations and what is required by them to bring about these changes have been helpful directions in managing the issue or consent which is directly confronted rather than being left as an accepted boundary. This paves the way for collaborative team effort to co-construct their sexual relationship, facilitating developmental growth vs remaining in a painful/angry standoff.
I would be interested to hear how others have worked with this issue ?

Sue Diamond Potts
Sue Diamond Potts

Marine – There are a few different approaches I might suggest. Do they believe they are addicted to alcohol? [Most people would stop eating strawberries if they broke out in a rash every time.] So, I want to know whether they have crossed the line into addictive use. I use a short, reliable test in sessions called “The Audit” which you can find online. Once you have the ‘objective facts’, then you can move forward with tougher confrontations about how that will interfere with their emotional growth. Continue to point out that progress is delayed as they avoid building emotional muscle by choosing a drink instead.

You can also experiment with their attempts to control the drinking, but if it failed, I would then make more direct and tough confrontations about how they may have more of a dependency than they want to acknowledge. I sometimes ask for a 3-month period of sobriety to get more traction on the relationship front. If they refuse, sometimes dropping a bombshell may be useful, addressing the fact you believe they are alcoholic.

The final option is to continue to limp along with lots of setbacks in the therapy because of their ongoing drinking and emotional fragility. I think work can progress, but only if you are reminding them of the effects of the drinking on the work you are doing. Get them curious about the role alcohol plays for each of them, what it means to drink; what it means to not drink, what their family history with it is and how they imagine it to be connected to their fear of intimacy. By doing this you will push their differentiation and confront their symbiotic attachment to the booze. These couples are tremendously difficult to work with.

Gerrit van brussel
Gerrit van brussel

Who’s money? Money is a means of transaction and cummunication. Taking and giving.
Money is an example of a kind of status or even ego. If your money is threathened, your ego is threathened and gives stress. Money is of relative value, is not stable. If the money devaluates, it devaluates your ego, that gives stress.
If couples don’t communicate well, they devaluate their partner. Ask them: What’s your intention?


I would agree with the subject of sex as an area of regression, power struggle and passive aggression. I can see where looking to the earlier experiences of both partners would be instructive. I imagine great gentleness would be required when exploring experiences that have caused partner to feel unsafe, fearful or angry. Potential hot potato.


What an excellent lesson! I do see this dynamic often in my work with clients. I love the idea of viewing it as a regression. I have in the past seen it as primarily a form of narcissism, which it may still be, but seeing it as a regression helps me be more emphatic with them and opens up different ideas for confronting it. Sometimes, it ‘s the woman who wants the man to take care of her and she regresses to a position of thinking, “I’m home with the kids all day so I should get to do what I want”. Or the man who can believe ” I work hard so I should get to spend the money any way I want!” Thank-you for the interesting way to view this age old problem and intervening in a new and different way.

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy. Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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