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Providing collaborative financial and couples counseling: Experiences of the financial counselors and couple's therapists


Leslie Green-Pimentel, M.S., AFC
Ph.D. Candidate
University of Georgia

Joseph Goetz, Ph.D., AFC
Assistant Professor
University of Georgia


Jerry Gale, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
University of Georgia


Maria Bermudez, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
University of Georgia

Abstract

This research paper examines financial counselors’ and couples therapists’ perspectives and experiences associated with an innovative program that combines financial and couples counseling to more effectively assist couples experiencing both financial and relationship strain. Upon program completion, financial counselors and couples therapists were interviewed regarding their experiences participating in this collaborative model. Overall the counselors and therapists reported a positive experience and reported many benefits not only for consumers but also for service providers. The results are applicable to Cooperative Extension professionals, both in terms of community education and service, as well as their work to build relationships with other professionals in their communities to improve the overall well-being of the families and individuals. Cooperative Extension professionals may benefit from increased awareness of the interaction of financial and relational stress and understanding how this knowledge can be integrated into educational programming and outreach.

Keywords: Financial counseling, couples counseling, counseling and education techniques

Introduction

It is often the case that couples in financial stress also have relationship stress, and it is certainly not unusual for couples in relational stress to have disagreements about money (Washburn and Christensen 2008). Research literature substantiates this strong association between relational and financial stress. For example, research indicates that marital satisfaction is negatively impacted by the presence of financial stress (Blumstein and Schwartz 1983; Johnson et al. 2006; Locke and Wallace 1959; Spanier 1976) and that couples in marital therapy often report having financial stress or problems (Aniol and Snyder 1997; Miller et al. 2003). Newlyweds are particularly vulnerable to financial factors adversely affecting their relationship satisfaction as substantial debt and lack of understanding on how to best manage that debt often occurs in marriages (Marshall and Skogrand 2004).

Graduate students studying financial planning and financial counseling are rarely exposed to the literature or intervention models for improving relationship dynamics and communication, and graduate students preparing to become therapists seldom learn anything about financial management. Similarly, Extension professionals that provide financial literacy programs may not have the same background and training as Extension professionals that provide programs focusing on family relationships. Thus, professional therapists, financial planners/counselors, and Extension professionals alike can find themselves ill-prepared to address the common, interactive complexity of consumers presenting both relational and financial issues (Miller et al. 2003). Suggestions have been made for creating a collaboration of the financial and therapy fields (Johnson et al. 2006) or at a minimum being able to recognize concomitant financial and relational stress in order to make appropriate referrals (Kerkmann et al. 2000). This paper provides findings from the first known intervention program that paired financial planners/counselors with couples therapists. While this article primarily highlights the experiences of financial counselors and couples therapists, applicable lessons can be drawn for Extension professionals to help them as they interact with consumers experiencing financial and relationship stress.

The Collaboration

The collaborative financial and couples therapy project (CFCTP) took place at a large southern university and consisted of three student therapists, three student financial counselors, and four supervising faculty representing the academic disciplines of marriage and family therapy, and family financial planning. Student counselors/therapists were graduate students, four of which were professionally certified in their field. Twelve couples on the threshold of poverty experiencing both relational and financial stress were recruited to participate in a five-session, psycho-educational intervention model where both a couples therapist and financial counselor were present at each session. Other criteria for couple participation included the following: at least one partner employed, sharing a residence for at least six months, and not currently undergoing financial or relational counseling. Couples engaged in follow-up interviews with at least one of the supervising faculty three months after their last session with the therapist and counselor team. The result of this collaboration was positive for both the couples and the graduate student counselors/therapists. In follow-up interviews the couples expressed their satisfaction as well as personal successes from working with two professionals, and preliminary analysis of client data reveal both financial and relational improvements among the participating couples (Gale et al. 2009). The student counselors/therapists also report a positive perspective on this collaboration and impact on their professional development. Their experiences are analyzed and presented in this paper.

Purpose and Objectives

While the CFCTP demonstrated improved well-being of participants (Gale et al. 2009), this exploratory study examined the experiences of the financial counselors and couples therapists as they worked together to improve the financial and relational well-being of couples. Objectives of the study included determining the benefits of this integrative model to both service providers and consumers as well as suggestions for increasing these benefits. Identifying the challenges associated with this type of collaboration was also an objective of this study in order to improve the education and training of professionals specializing in the delivery of financial or relationship education.

Methods

The term counselor is used to refer to both financial planners/counselors and couples therapists for the remainder of the article unless otherwise noted. At the conclusion of the CFCTP, counselors were asked to complete an open-ended questionnaire that consisted of 11 questions.

The purpose of the questionnaire was to learn about the counselors’ experiences and views of participating in the CFCTP, and their opinions concerning such an interdisciplinary collaboration. Three examples of the questions asked are as follows:

The data were analyzed using thematic content analysis and the constant comparison method. Responses were reviewed and coded for common themes. The themes were refined and revised by the authors until seven distinct key themes emerged. Presented below is a summary of the questionnaire results of the six counselors’ perspectives on the CFCTP.

Results and Discussion

The counselors were all in agreement that they observed a strong interactive effect between financial and relational stress among couples participating in the CFCTP. This observation of the counselors is consistent with prior research that also suggests an association between financial and relational well-being (Aniol and Snyder 1997; Blumstein and Schwartz 1983; Johnson et al. 2006, Locke and Wallace 1959; Miller et al. 2003; Spanier 1976). The counselors noted that through their prior experience and through the CFCTP it was evident that a couple’s relationship stress was compounded by the financial stressors they were experiencing, and that the relationship stress intensified with more serious financial issues. One counselor commented, “…money is a major source of stress because it often magnifies the character issues/attributes of the parties involved.”

There were three points generally agreed upon as being important to building rapport and having a positive experience. First, each financial counselor and couples therapist should spend the necessary time together to build rapport with each other before providing the intervention to couples. This can help the first few sessions go more smoothly if the professionals are already familiar with each other. One therapist indicated, “…if I did not get along professionally with another counselor, I would have dreaded the project.”  Second, they should learn about each other’s counseling style, approach, and pace. This could be done through simple conversation in the days prior to the first session and will help each know what to expect from their counterpart. Third, they should communicate clearly and comfortably with each other. This is good for the clients to observe but also benefits the financial counselor and couples therapist as they learn from each other, listen to feedback given, and prepare for future sessions.

These data support the body of literature that demonstrates the relationship between financial and relational distress (Aniol and Snyder 1997; Blumstein and Schwartz 1983; Johnson et al. 2006; Locke and Wallace 1959; Miller et al. 2003; Spanier 1976). During the Collaborative Financial Couples Therapy Program (CFCTP) financial counselors and couples therapists agreed that they did not individually possess the skills necessary to properly address both relationship and financial stress and that there are benefits to such collaboration for both the counselors and clientele. A similar response would be expected from Extension professionals with focus areas of finances or family relations. Cross training among the disciplines is important, but cannot take the place of the extensive training that a therapist or financial planner/counselor receives through their respective disciplines. Extension professionals are in an excellent position to identify consumers that may be experiencing both financial and relational distress, and are encouraged to facilitate collaborative pro-bono efforts in their communities through the networks they create with industry professionals. This study provides evidence that counselors/therapists are willing to engage in pro bono services for the good of the community. As Extension professionals form valuable networks with local financial and relationship experts, they can encourage collaboration to meet the needs of local consumers who are facing both financial and relational stress.

References

Aniol, Julie C., and Douglas K. Synder. 1997. Differential assessment of financial and relationship distress: Implications for couples therapy. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 23 (3):347-352.

Blumstein, Philip, and Pepper Schwartz. 1983. American couples. New York: William Morrow.

Bronfenbrenner, Urie. 1979. The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gale, Jerry, Joseph Goetz, and Maria Bermudez. 2009. Relational Financial Therapy: Money & Families. Forthcoming.

Johnson, Alena C., Yoon G. Lee, Thomas R. Lee, and D. G. Schramm. 2006. Financial factors contributing to marital satisfaction in early marriage. Paper read at The Association of Financial Counseling and Planning Education, at San Antonio, Texas.

Kerkmann, Barbara C., Thomas R. Lee, Jean M. Lown, and Scot M. Allgood. 2000. Financial management, financial problems and marital satisfaction among recently married university students. Financial Counseling and Planning 11 (2):55-65.

Locke, Harvey J., and Karl M. Wallace. 1959. Short marital-adjustment and prediction tests: Their reliability and validity. Marriage and Family Living 21 (3):251-255.

Marshall, James P., and Linda Skogrand. 2004. Newlywed debt: The anti dowry. The Forum for Family and Consumer Issues (FFCI) 9 (1). On-line: http://ncsu.edu/ffci/publications/2004/v9-n1-2004-march/fa-1-newlywed.php

Miller, Richard B., Jeremy B. Yorgason, Jonathan G. Sandberg, and Mark B. White. 2003. Problems that couples bring to therapy: A view across the family life cycle. American Journal of Family Therapy 31 (5):395.

Spanier, Graham B. 1976. Measuring dyadic adjustment: new scales for assessing the quality of marriage and similar dyads. Journal of Marriage and the Family 38 (1):15-28.

Washburn, Carolyn , and Darlene  Christensen. 2008. Financial harmony: A key component of successful marriage relationship. The Forum for Family and Consumer Issues (FFCI) 13 (1). On-line: http://ncsu.edu/ffci/publications/2008/v13-n1-2008-spring/Washburn-Christensen.php

Cite this article

Leslie Green Pimentel, Joseph Goetz, Jerry Gale, and Maria Bermudez. 2009. Providing collaborative financial and couples counseling:  Experiences of the financial counselors and couple's therapists. The Forum for Family and Consumer Issues, 14 (2).

On-line: http://ncsu.edu/ffci/publications/2009/v14-n2-2009-summer/index-v14-n2-summer-2009.php

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