The Jack Sprat Accord

Remember that nursery rhyme about Jack Sprat and his wife? Evidently Mr. Sprat had a predilection for leaner fare while his wife was more of a… gourmand. Between the two of them, so the story goes, they managed to efficiently apportion meals and thus together they would “lick the platter clean.”

Food tastes and food consumption are often a handy metaphor when it comes to material tastes and material consumption. Not that one can use eating behavior to predict what kind of consumer a person will be – in fact, oftentimes sublimated physical hunger is translated into a compulsion to buy – but there are certain areas of overlap. Unconscious eating often accompanies unconscious spending, for example.

But back to Mr. Sprat et famille. The point of the rhyme is to show how differences in partners often lead to greater stability or efficiency in the overall system. Two individuals may have certain extremes that are evened out by the opposite traits in their partners.

In my own work with couples this often seems to be true. Perhaps the two spouses are not as dynamically opposed as the Sprats, but even where there is a high degree of harmony and overlap there are inevitably certain areas where members of a couple find themselves coming from two very different positions (not Mars and Venus necessarily, but you get the drift).

Many times this is the case when it comes to responding to financial crisis. I’m not talking here about day-to-day financial management or long-term planning. In in these areas there is a greater likelihood that the partners have worked out some sort of agreement or at least had a discussion about how such a task will be approached. But in a financial crisis we often revert right back to our core selves, when primitive impulses grab hold and the decision-making process becomes more reactive.

Sometimes these reactions catch a couple off-guard and make it more difficult to negotiate how to respond to the crisis. One partner may want to sell everything in the house and the other may be equally convinced that they need to hold on to every last little item because they won’t be able to buy anything else they may need. Each feels that they are offering up the best and most practical response, yet they cannot understand how the other person sees it so differently.

It would be a mistake for the couple to become mired in trying to convince, coerce, or manipulate each other into simply accepting one person's course over the other. Usually reactive positions are too extreme to provide a truly workable solution. Also, the “solution” may be implemented at a serious cost to the relationship if a partner feels shut down and shut out of so important a decision.

One reason it is difficult for couples to find compromise in this area is because they think they are arguing the merits of their suggested course, but chances are they are really reliving a previous trauma.

Financial crises threaten our most basic sense of security. For someone who experienced distress around money as a child (which includes many if not most of us at one point or another), going through a financial crisis as an adult is likely to re-activate that part of the self that once felt completely vulnerable, afraid, and overwhelmed. When we are children we are powerless to affect the course of action taken by our parents yet we suffer their anxieties and yearn to help resolve the problem.

Often the “solutions” we perceive then are small acts of self-control or strategies for self-protection. We may tell ourselves “I won’t let Mommy know that that’s the doll I want because it’s too expensive and it would upset her not to be able to buy it,” or “If I rip my shirt I will try to pin the hole so I won’t get yelled at for ruining more of my clothes.”

These seemingly minor actions are the germs of adult behavior patterns to come. “Don’t tell Mommy I want” is a way of exerting control by cutting off feelings of desire, and can easily grow into the adult reaction of “sell everything in the house.” Hiding the tear in the shirt is a conservation response that protects against fear that a replacement can’t be had (or is not worth the misery it takes to get it).

Early experiences are the foundation upon which we build our patterns of preference. In a crisis, there is a strong emotional component to the experience that may contend or even defy the part of us that is rational.

Because these early events are often unconscious and do not readily spring to mind in a crisis – who would equate not getting a coveted doll with trying to stave off foreclosure? – couples are often at a loss as to how to find a common course of action AND support each other. Working with a clinician who is competent in financial wellness can help, as can having an idea of one’s own emotional and historical territory around money.

When it comes to financial decision-making, what constitutes a “good” or “bad” choice is only partly about the bottom line. Other concerns are also important. Personal integrity matters, as does trust. Maintaining a nurturing relationship should be included as a priority.

If it does not threaten their security, couples should endeavor to use a financial crisis as an opportunity for exploration and growth. Sometimes when people discover where their preference pattern began they are able to diffuse some of the emotional intensity behind it, allowing them to determine a more balanced and rational course of action. They may also be better able to hear their partner's point of view and elect a solution that takes both positions into account – the Jack Sprat Accord, if you will.

When a solution is emotionally balanced and co-developed, not only is there a better chance for cooperation and success in resolving the problem, but there may be a renewed sense of intimacy in the partnership as well. Licking the crisis together can be the greatest reward of all.