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Chelsea talks with Dr. Orna Guralnik of Showtime's 'Couples Therapy' about dealing with money in a relationship, having empathy for your partner, and identifying where our money and relationship anxieties come from.

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Dr. Guralnik website: http://www.ornaguralnik.com/
'Couples Therapy' on Showtime: https://www.sho.com/couples-therapy/

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Hello, everyone, and welcome back to an all new episode of The Financial Confessions.

It's me, your host, Chelsea Fagan, founder and CEO of The Financial Diet. And today we are here to talk about a topic that we've touched on in various ways over the seasons but haven't yet done a true deep dive on, and that is specifically money as it pertains to couples, relationships, and in the case of my guest, couples therapy.

You guys write in all the time about the various issues that you're experiencing in your primary partner relationship. There's also, of course, tons of money issues in family and friends relationships, although I think just our spouse or significant other is worth its own deep dive. And what's interesting about the stories that we hear and the things that we experience in our own lives and relationships is that money is often just a shorthand for a lot of other things that we may be experiencing, differences in background, differences in values, and all of these various aspects of a relationship that may not be as easy to talk about because they're not as concrete as money is.

On the other hand, many people find money to be the most difficult thing to talk about with a partner, and their problems and disagreements and disappointments with money get channeled into all kinds of other issues that are, for some people, less taboo. Suffice to say, very few people have a totally healthy, totally holistic, totally communicative, and totally unburdened relationship with money themselves, let alone when they come into long term financial cohabitation with another person. Even questions as simple as, should we keep our money more together or separate, should we split bills evenly or based on how much we earn proportionally, should we have a prenup-- things that seem fairly cut and dry and fairly based on finances are ultimately extremely emotionally charged questions, and the answers are more complicated than just whatever math makes sense on paper.

My guest today is Dr. Orna Guralnik. She is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst based here in New York City.

She is also the therapist featured on the Showtime series Couples Therapy, which is premiering its third season on May 13. That is on Showtime. She sees couples in her practice all the time.

She also sees them on the show, and has a lot of really interesting and insightful things to say on the intersection of relationships and money. So without further ado, let's meet her. And thanks to Calm, the number one mental wellness app, and one of my personal favorite apps-- that's actually true-- for supporting The Financial Confessions.

Calm is offering you an exclusive offer of 40% off a Calm premium subscription at calm.com/tfc. And also thank you to Athletic Greens for supporting this episode of The Financial Confessions. Athletic Greens is going to give you a free one year supply of immune supporting vitamin D and 5 free travel packs with your first purchase.

Go to athleticgreens.com/tfc and take ownership over your health, and pick the ultimate daily nutritional insurance. So welcome, Dr. Guralnik.

Thank you for being here with us. Hi, Chelsea. Hi.

So can you tell a little bit more to our audience about what you do, what you specialize in? Sure. I'm a clinical psychologist and a psychoanalyst, which means I see people in an analytic practice, I see people often multiple times a week, sometimes using the couch.

And in addition, I also see couples and I'm the therapist on the documentary series Couples Therapy. And what is that? Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Yeah, it's a very interesting project. We're now in the midst of shooting our fourth season. It's a project in which we film something like 20 sessions of my work with couples-- film it documentary style, meaning the couples-- I mean, obviously they agree to be filmed, but there is no cameras in the room.

It's all arranged so that the office feels like a regular therapist's office, and we follow just a pretty straightforward couples therapy for a period of about 18 to 20 weeks. And the editors then, the directors and editors, then do their magic and somehow manage to condense an entire treatment into nine episodes. And the series ends up following somewhere between three and four couples per season and the work they're doing in therapy.

It's very close to how it really feels series, meaning it's not-- there's no editing towards any particular sensation, there's no guidance that people are getting in terms of what are the outcomes expected. It's really documenting a real treatment. And are these couples that you were working with prior and that you asked them to be part of the show?

No, that would not really be an ethical thing to do in a private practice. No. These are people that the production team worked diligently on recruiting.

They interview thousands of couples and they recruit couples that want to work with me, want to be-- agree to be on the show. I mean, they don't always necessarily get aired, but they know they're being filmed and they're recruited and then I just meet them on camera. Now you mentioned that it might be unethical-- and it's not my wheelhouse.

I have many, and the ethics of psychology are not one of them. But you mentioned that it might not be ethical to ask preexisting patients to participate in something like this, but obviously in the history of televised therapy there's been some really bad stuff, some really-- what seems like even from a layman's perspective, not super ethical, not super optimal. In your view, what makes therapy worth doing on television in certain contexts and what makes it good or bad examples?

To be honest with you, I haven't watched any other shows that do this, so I don't know what other people do. I can tell you from my own perspective what's ethical, what's not ethical, and what's worth doing or not. First of all, in terms of why people want to do it, I mean, the couples-- I don't know about the couples that apply to be on the series, but the couples that eventually are selected are couples that, first of all, really do want and need treatment.

So that's the main thing that they're doing. Many people, in a certain way, don't exactly mind being on camera or they're not exactly sure what it's going to feel like so they give it a try, and some people give it a try and realize, you know what? I can't do this.

And some people give it a try and realize it actually doesn't make a big difference. And I think especially among younger people-- I mean, I'm watching my kids and people of a different generation. I mean, they live a lot of their life on social media anyhow, so it's not that odd for them to be doing it on camera.

But from my own experience I have to say that the surprising thing that occurred to me when I started doing this is that the work is the work and it doesn't matter if it's on camera or not. I mean, there are certain ways in which it does matter, but in terms of how the actuality of the work feels, it feels like the same kind of work. I also think there are other reasons why people either choose to do it on camera or end up realizing that it was good for them to do it on camera, which is that it's, in a certain way, a chance for people to tell their story to a certain audience they have in mind that matters to them.

So some people might be, in some way, both talking to me, but they're also talking to significant other people in their life that they want to tell their story to, whether it's family members or a certain community or a certain people that they have in mind that they're really talking to through me and through the cameras. Which is true in general in terms of treatment, that people are often talking to their therapists, but they're talking to more than their therapist in their mind. They could be talking to their mom, they could be talking to a certain kind of someone who never understood them or who never got to hear their story, or they might be negotiating with an internal-- what we call an internal object.

The reason why I wouldn't ask existing patients of mine to participate in this is because there's a certain kind of built in power dynamic between therapist and patient, and I don't think people would feel the complete freedom to consent or disagree. I think they would feel, on some kind of basic level, mildly coerced into agreeing with my request, so I don't think they would have the complete freedom to figure that out for themselves so I wouldn't do that. Yeah.

So on our show, we typically talk about money and how it intersects with all things, in this case being couples-- relationship problems, couples therapy, et cetera. We talk a lot about the data around the role that money and finances plays in either problems couples experience or eventual separations, divorce, breakups, et cetera. From your clinical experience, to what extent is money or money in finances a player in the couples that come into your office as problems?

That's a complex question. There's a common belief among people that money and sex are like the main issues that couples come in with, and to a certain degree, on the face of it, it looks true that often people come in either because they're not having sex or they're having some issues around sex or they're having some tension or strife or stress around money. So I would say that in my mind, it gets divided into two different categories when we think specifically about finances.

One is couples that have real issues around finances-- and I'll talk about it a little bit-- but don't know how to talk about it so their stressors or their issues appear in other domains, but really those other domains are proxies for tensions around finances. And then there are the couples that argue a lot about money and about finances, and often that is a proxy for other issues that they're really not dealing with and that the money becomes kind of the easier arena or the more concretized arena to work through their issues or to act out their issues. But finances and money are often tied to a very wide web of meaning for people and I mean, I can map out just a few different things just to give you the beginning of a sense of how you can think analytically about the location of finances within, say, the matrix of a couple's life.

But finances, first of all, have to do-- first of all, there's the concrete reality of having and not having. Having the ability to live a livable life, pay rent, buy food, have kids, the things that people often want, and money is one of the ways that makes it possible or not. So there's the material reality of money and the stress that comes with not having it.

Then there's all that money means to people. Money gets often very associated with self esteem. For some people, money is a way to mark whether they've made it or haven't made it in their life, whether they're a worthwhile individual or not.

People differ in terms of the way finances and gender intersect. So women and men often have different feelings around money and different feelings about different distributions of money between them and at what it means. If one is earning more than the other, what does it mean between the couple?

And that often intersects with gender. Money has to do a lot-- it ties a lot for people with dependence. So if one person is more of the earner, is the only or stronger earner, what does it mean for the other person?

What does it mean for both of them in terms of dependence on each other? What kind of feelings and dynamics gets stirred up around dependence? Money, of course, means power between people, and how do they each relate to power.

Does one feel more entitled to things because they earn more money? Does one feel like they've sacrificed much because they're not earning money or they've changed careers to support the family? So a lot about power and sacrifice.

Money is deeply tied, of course, to issues of class and depending on people's class background, they will relate to money very differently. They will relate to spending differently. They will relate to what it means to have or not have.

They will relate to the differences between them differently depending on their class background and their loyalty to their class background. Loyalty to one's class background is a very, very powerful dynamic between couples, and if people come from different class backgrounds as people often do, a lot of their issues around that get expressed through the way they talk about money. I think those are good general ideas of how I-- beginning of how I map finances.

Are there common habits or communication styles or behaviors that you see in couples as it pertains to money that you think are very common mistakes that people make about it? The most common mistake that people make, in my mind, is not finding a way to be honest, honest about what matters to people in terms of money. There's a lot of beating around the bush and talking about other things rather than talking directly about concerns, about everything we talked about in terms of money.

So that's the most common mistake. And then the other thing is, which it's related to the difficulty being honest, is the tendency to get heated and there's a lot of feelings of potential issues of humiliation and fear that get triggered around money, and people have a hard time in those domains and they get heated. Either they shut down or they get furious or they do all sorts of maneuvers around communication that actually make the conversation impossible because either, again, people get too heated or shut down, so they make the conversation very difficult.

But it's related to the issue of being able to be honest. I think when people are very honest about money and what their concerns are, usually they can have very creative and productive and interesting conversations about what money means to each of them and then how to problem solve around it. But it's hard for couples to get to that point.

When you talk about money being an easy shorthand or a more comfortable conduit for larger issues or larger behaviors or miscommunications, can you talk a little bit about what that translates to as you see it? So for example, we speak-- we hear a lot from our audience about having financial problems and relationships that ultimately boil down to one person being a bit of a spender, the other being more of a saver, having very different relationships to what's appropriate on either of those ends. What are the kinds of larger issues or drivers that you're seeing that get channeled through those relationships to money?

What a great question. I love that question. Hey, thanks.

First of all, yes. People have a lot of arguments about, for example, spending. What's a good thing to spend on, what's a frivolous thing to spend on, what's worthwhile to spend on, what's not.

And in a way, you could think of it as similar to should the knives in the dishwasher be up or down. People have very strong opinions about that and they can argue till the cows come home about things like that. So some of it is just, what do you do with difference?

Someone likes to spend on this, someone like spend on that, and people negotiate just their tension around difference through anything, so that could be about money too. But there are sometimes much deeper issues that get communicated and negotiated through these questions about, for example, spending that have to do, for example, as I mentioned earlier, let's say class background. So I had a couple actually on one of our seasons-- and I feel like I can talk about them because they haven't asked for confidentiality.

So for them, they had-- they brought in a classic argument they had about a slushy, buying a slushy. And for her, who came from a real very basic working class family, buying a slushy meant I get to live like any other normal people in America and I can buy a slushy. It's not going to kill us to spend $3 on a slushy.

For him, who came from a much more traditional middle class family with a lot of security and a lot of investment in the future, for him it was like, why do you need a slushy right now? We can wait. When I finish my degree and I start working properly-- he was still in school-- we'll have plenty of money for slushies and more.

You don't need the slushy right now. So it meant a lot to them in terms of the class background they came from, and it took them a lot of time to unwind and unspool what it meant for them to be spending the $3 on the slushy. But really what it meant for them is like, which class background do I come from and who am I loyal to in terms of how I understand what I'm spending money on?

That is interesting. I say get the slushy, personally. So in all this talk about doing what's right for ourselves and caring for ourselves, it is time for a quick break.

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Again, that is athleticgreens.com/tfc to take ownership over your health and pick up the ultimate daily nutritional insurance. OK. So we have quite a lot of questions from our audience, so we'll try and get through as many of these as we can while we have you.

So the first one-- I know this is probably one that you're not going to be able to give a hard yes or no to, but I would like to hear your thoughts. Is it generally better for couples to keep their finances separated? Great question, and of course, I do not have one answer fits all.

I do not. I think the conversation about whether to do that can be a really interesting conversation. Why do couples need-- like what is the pros and cons of keeping things separate versus together?

What is the fear that each person has about keeping accounts separate versus about merging accounts? That conversation is fantastic. It's a really good conversation to have, and it's not one conversation.

And I can tell you that in the developmental trajectory of a relationship, that question should get revisited every new chapter. I mean, when people start off in a relationship they might feel one way about merging finances. Later in life they might feel differently and later in life again they might feel differently, and they might want to do trial and error.

And some people do a combination of some accounts separate and some kind of [? kitty ?] that they share in. But the logic and the fears around each option are really interesting for people to talk about, and it's not one conversation. We have someone asking, how do I know if I need individual versus couple therapy?

Again, I can't answer that with a one answer fits all. But let's just say if a person realizes that they repeat a certain pattern in most of their relationships, probably they need to do some work on their own before they do couples work. I mean, when I'm working with couples and the couples are both doing individual work and couples work, the work goes a lot faster.

So if you have the time and finances to do both, sometimes it's better to do both. I'm trying to think if there's anything I could really offer that would answer that question in kind of one size fits all. Well, I think that's already a very useful litmus test because if you are having a lot of very specific problems in your marriage or your primary romantic relationship that you don't see in other areas of your life, that's probably an indication that it's a dynamic between the two of you.

But if you're getting in the same fights with a lot of people, the problem might be you. OK. So someone is asking, I'm very interested in the impact that parents have on their children's relationship with money.

What are some ways that we can break the cycle of the money habits that they inherited? First of all, whoever is asking the question, yes, it's really interesting, first of all, how children-- kind of what they take from their parents, how much they absorb from their parents in terms of their parents' relationship to money. And again, I want to emphasize that especially in the case of parents and money, a lot of it has to do with class.

I mean, people take in a class belonging orientation to finances that they then either repeat or if they've moved, if they've shifted from one class to another, they will at some point struggle with those issues. But how not to pass things on, how to break the cycle. I think one way to break the cycle in general-- that's true for parenting in general, not just finances-- is to be transparent with your kids about how you're thinking about these issues.

So not only transparent about your relationship with money, but transparent about how you observe your own relationship to money, because each of us have parents too and we have interesting thoughts within us in terms of how we understand our relationship to money and we can share those thoughts with our kids. We can teach them how to self reflect about their relationship to money and then make choices armed with this third position, this perch of self reflection. Let's say you're struggling between-- let's say you come from a very impulsive background, like your parents were very impulsive and you saw them act impulsively with money.

You can think about it out loud and struggle with your impulse. I want to spend right now. I want to buy this thing, and I don't care if it's going to cost me-- next month I'm not going to be able to pay rent.

Think about it out loud. Show your kid how you struggle with it. Not only what you end up doing, but your thought process.

So I think that's the best gift. Someone is asking for tips on two people together from wildly different class backgrounds. First of all, again, I'm an analyst, so most things that people ask me I say very interesting.

It's very interesting. Keep in mind that if you're coming from different class backgrounds, it's going to play out in all sorts of surprising arenas in your life. It's going to play out for sure around money.

It's going to play out around what time to go to bed. It's going to play out in terms of how to raise your kids. It's going to play out in many different ways-- whether something is rude or not rude.

And what I would advise people to do is to be really interested in how class intersects with whatever preferences they have and whatever conflicts they have, and assume that you can't solve those things. Those are differences that are going to be forever interrogated, useful information about yourselves, about the couple, about society at large. Really interesting questions, but you're not going to just solve it.

These are not questions that you can have one conversation and solve the problem. These are differences that are deeply held, deeply emotional, and require just ongoing curiosity and interrogation. And not try to impose your class thinking on another, but really try to make room for many.

What are some common financial practices that you observe in healthy couples? I would say transparency, like honesty, transparency, super important, and generosity. And by generosity, I don't just mean generosity in terms of financial generosity, but generosity of spirit in terms of being able to understand that people operate from different sets of needs and wants, and not imposing your own set of values, needs, and wants on another, but being willing and wanting to understand your partner on their terms and being creative in terms of finding solutions based on that egalitarian Democratic model.

Yeah. This is interesting. So one of the things that we hear a lot when we talk about therapy on the channel is how financially prohibitive it can be for a lot of people, and how it's just not super accessible.

So this person is asking-- and I think this represents that a bit-- how do you help clients or what do you recommend for people with financial anxiety when therapy can be one of their biggest expenses and therefore, one of the biggest drivers of that anxiety? I would recommend, first of all, engaging in therapy that fits your means. So don't overspend on therapy, spend therapy based on what you can afford.

And even though it's hard to find, there are therapies for all levels of income. There are expensive therapists, there are middle of the road therapists, and there are all sorts of opportunities and options for people to spend quite little on therapy if that's what they have. There are training institutes where less experienced clinicians get really great supervision and do fantastic work.

And sometimes because they're beginners, they actually put their heart and soul into it so they can do better work sometimes than the more seasoned of us. There are community settings that offer treatment for less able communities. Group therapy is sometimes a really powerful modality and is less expensive.

There are all sorts of ways to get therapy, but therapy should fit within your life. It shouldn't be some kind of added expense that doesn't make sense. It should be part of how you live.

So obviously for most couples-- not most, but for many couples, one of the biggest kind of life event choices that it can either bring out or aggravate financial differences as having children. We don't often talk, I think, about having children as a financial decision, but for many people it's the most consequential financial decision they'll ever make in their life, so I feel like we could address that a little bit more. We have a lot of people asking questions around the topic of children.

One of them is asking, what should I do if I very much want children, but my partner is not sure that they ever will? Yeah. I mean, certainly have worked with many people who were struggling with that issue.

It's interesting. There's going to be-- a season that we're filming now, there's a couple that's working through that difference. I would say the same thing that I say about any significant difference between two people in a relationship.

Approach the issue, first of all, from a position of not imposing and not expecting to be imposed upon. So open up the discussion-- and it's never going to be just one discussion on issues like it, but open up a process of first of all, trying to do your best to understand the other person and make sure that they feel understood. And then vice versa for you to be able to really articulate your own reasons and make sure your partner understands it.

And then try to think of it from different perspectives. Try to get creative. Beyond the one and the other-- first of all, most of the time when people have two, let's say, polarized positions, usually the truth of the matter is that each one of them is, to some degree, ambivalent about the issue.

Even the people that come in and say, I definitely don't want kids, there's a part of them that's wondering, am I missing out on something? Would I feel differently under different circumstances? I mean, often there's some inner ambivalence or debate there, and vice versa on the other side also.

The people who say I really, really want kids, in the back of their mind they also might be thinking, oh my God, is my life going to be over when I have kids? Will I be able to afford it? Blah, blah, blah.

I mean, people are ambivalent. They're not monolithic in terms of their opinions. And if you create a situation where it's not a win-lose and not a completely adversary discussion or fight, but really putting everything on the table and trying to think through it, all sorts of new permutations arise.

And you might arrive at unexpected outcomes if you really open up the discussion and give it the time and give it the space it needs. But the moment you create a situation where one person tries to force or manipulate or threaten or withdraw, kind of put pressure, yeah, things immediately get polarized. That's not a good outcome.

No. Also I just feel like we shouldn't be in the business of trying to convince people about something as consequential as whether or not to have a kid. You can maybe convince someone that you're better off taking the Amtrak to DC than driving, but I don't know that we need to bear down on each other about whether or not we need to bring a kid into the world.

A lot of people asking what you think about prenups. Very tricky. What do I think about prenups?

I think prenups are designed to solve certain kind of anxieties. Could be anxieties about abandonment, it can be anxieties about dependence, it can be paranoid anxieties about exploitation. There are all sorts of anxieties that fuel prenups, and some of them even have to do with loyalties, like who are you loyal to?

Are you loyal to your family of origin or to your new partner? There are all sorts of anxieties and issues that prenups try to solve, and sometimes they do manage to bind those anxieties and resolve certain tensions. However, prenups also have an effect forward, not only an effect in terms of, oh my God, what happens if we split up?

But they will also color how people experience their marriage. So if a prenup is motivated by, let's say, a lot of paranoia, the marriage is going to be fueled by that. It's going to be colored by a paranoid prenup.

If a prenup is designed with a spirit of great generosity and just really creating a lot of safety for everyone, then it will color the marriage that way. So a prenup doesn't only color what will happen if we get divorced, it also colors the marriage, and I think it's important to keep that in mind. Well, I do feel a sort ethical obligation for my own perspective to say that I do believe everyone should get a prenup, but not so much because I think everyone is going to necessarily need one, but in part because of what you're saying in terms of the spirit in which a prenup is done.

I think it would be much healthier if we all normalized the process of planning for every possible outcome, including ones where we don't end up together, or even your partner could be incapacitated. Something really dramatic could change. Suffice to say, I think I agree with you that if a prenup is done in the spirit of, I'm trying to-- I'm suspicious of this person and I want to inoculate myself against whatever I think they're going to do, I actually think, are you sure you guys should be getting married?

Would be my next question if that's what you're thinking about. But I do think often people-- because they're less common and I think they used to be much more heavily associated with people with really substantial assets, especially familial assets and things like that, people, I think, tend to frame them through a prism of, you only need one if you think something bad is going to happen. And you mentioned the possibility of doing a prenup in a spirit of generosity, in a spirit of I love you, and even if we don't end up together I want to make sure that we're both treated fairly and so on.

And as the last note, and I have to credit this to our former season one guest, divorce lawyer James Sexton, who reminded us all, everyone has a prenup. It's just it might just be whatever the default laws of your state are if you haven't taken the time to do one. But I definitely agree that a lot of them can be done in really acrimonious and circumstances or bad faith, and that seems like not a good harbinger for the marriage.

Mhm. A lot of people asking about essentially some variation of, I want to go to therapy, couples therapy. My partner doesn't.

How do I get them to go? You barter. You say, how about we give it a try.

If you agree to do it this way, here's what I'll do for you. We do love a good negotiation here at The Financial Diet. Bartering.

I'm very pro bartering. How do you split slash should you split things equally, even if one person makes more? Yeah.

That's a really interesting one, and very much, again, depends on the kind of ideology people come into the relationship with. I mean, some people believe that how much you earn should not make any difference and we're equal citizens and if the couple is lucky that one person is earning more, both should be happy about it. And some people believe that if you earn more, you get more.

If you're putting in more money, you get more rights. Again, I don't have my own opinion about it. I mean, I have how I like to live, but I don't think one size fits all.

But I think being open about what your assumptions are in terms of what money allows you in a relationship is really important to do, to have those conversations. We had that-- I think it was in the first season, Sarah and Lauren had that discussion between them, a very open discussion that was edited into the series where Lauren earned more and believed that she the her earning power gave her more rights in terms of, for example, not doing as much housework. And her partner, Sarah, thought, what the hell, that has nothing to do with housework.

Both of us should be doing housework. It has nothing to do with earning. What?

And it was very interesting for them to negotiate and influence each other on this front, and Lauren eventually gave up that position and thought, you know what? That's kind of a patriarchal position and I don't want to be affiliated with that position, but that's what she came in with. So they had to have lots of conversations about it to find their common ground.

Yeah. That's really, really common, just the inherent undervaluing of domestic labor as labor that's being brought into, or value, rather, that's being brought into any kind of partnership. But I would also say to people in this situation, because we hear about it all the time, ultimately it is very, very easy for a substantial power dynamic in terms of earning to turn into control, coercion, undue influence, even a financial abuse in some cases.

And I do think it's very incumbent on the person who is the higher earner in the relationship to make sure that they're finding ways to offset the power imbalance that creates in their favor because that can easily spiral. Yeah. Well, thank you again so much.

Where can our audience go to find more of what you do? Well, I write. Awesome.

I have papers out there. And the series, of course. And there are lots of books on psychoanalysis, couples and all of that not written by me that are interesting for people to read.

And Chelsea, thank you. These were really, really interesting questions. I'm kind of-- the depth of your questions and your audience was really wonderful for me to engage with.

Well, thank you. Our audience is, in my opinion, one of the best on the internet, so they sent in great questions as always. And thank you guys, as always, for tuning in, and we will see you next Monday on an all new episode of The Financial Confessions.

Good bye.