The most important men in town would come to fawn on me.
They would ask me to advise them, like Solomon the Wise.
Posing problems that would cross a rabbi's eye!
And it won't make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong.
When you're rich, they think you really know!
Tevye -- Fiddler on the Roof
Money plays a significant role in how we live our lifes. While money is usually considered an asset, how we relate to money has significant psychological consequences.
The utilization of money as a means to trade goods has been around for thousands of years, be it a shell, a coin, a piece of paper or electronic payment. Money is valuable because we know everyone else will accept it as a form of currency. The coin or piece of paper independent of what it represents, however, is worthless. Money only has value as a symbol of what it signifies -- I.e, an elaborate barter system where you exchange services and goods.
Sometimes symbols can become over ridden with personal meanings. Like many symbols, money can detach from its originally intention and take on a totally different meaning with a life on its own. For example, money can be associated with freedom, power, personal identity, self-worth, or even immortality to name a few.
Money with all its symbolism and psycho-social significance can play a major role in people's life. Money can affect one's mental health, marriage, families, friendships, job, and even political viewpoints. It is no wonder that money is one of the top concerns people have when seeking out psychological services.
I see many individuals in my practice where money has become a symbol attached to one's sense of identity and self-worth. I saw one gentleman who was obsessed with how much he lost in the stock market 17 years ago. It still keeps him up at night. While he does well financially and lives a very comfortable life, he still looks back and beats himself up with "should have could haves" about his past investment strategies. No matter how good a person he is, his identity and self worth is dependent upon what he did with his money many years ago. He still owned this one stock that he lost a lot of money in. Each day he watches the stock market to see if this stock went up or down. If it goes up he feels good about himself, if it goes down, he has a bad week. He has a true case, of what I call "Dow Affective Disorder" -- an emotional roller coaster associated with perceived self worth based upon the paper value of an investment. You often hear that you should not be emotionally attached to investments, but to many, investments are the pillar upon which to value one's sense of worth. Is having a lot of money true wealth if you are still unhappy? Perhaps Benjamin Franklin had they right interpretation for this gentleman: "Wealth is not his that has it, but his that enjoys it."
I once saw a young man in his early thirties who was so successful in his career that he could retire. He did not seem to have much interest in the possessions that money could buy. However, he had no other interests than working and when he was not working he would become overwhelmed with anxiety. It was this anxiety that brought him to see me. Why did he continue to work so hard at making money and why did he get so anxious when he tried to relax? What was he getting out of the work that was so compelling? What he did for a living was about out-smarting others. Making the good deal and beating out his opponent is what made him feel good about himself -- gave him a sense of self worth. As I got to know him better, the connection to his childhood experience with his younger brother became apparent. He and his brother were always in competition, yet no matter how much he achieved, his parents always viewed his brother as being smarter and more successful. When he was winning the deal he felt good, but the moment he was not engaged in the game, he was once again overwhelmed with fears of being a failure.
I often hear stories of aunts or uncles who were thought to be poor, but died with millions of dollars in the bank. Why would a person live like a pauper, live so frugally to the degree of deprivation, yet die with so much money in the bank? What purpose did the money serve? Did it actually give them a sense of security or safety net from the unknown? Did they believe they could take it with them? Ironically, the distant relative that inherits the money often has a different sense of meaning attached to the money. Rather than deprivation for security, they see the money as something for nothing and freedom to spend. To quote Dire Straits: "Oh that ain't workin' that's the way you do it. Get your money for nothin' get your chicks for free."
Money is one of the top issues that comes up in marital therapy as a presenting stressor. What happens when two individuals, raised with very different financial values, become a family? What if he is a believer in saving and she believes in spending? What if one person comes to the marriage with much more money than the other person or has a significantly higher income? While the concept of two individuals become one under the eyes of God makes sense from a spiritual and emotional perspective, the merging of two bank accounts is far more complex and not so easy to work out. When you get married, should you keep separate accounts, have a joint account or have a little of both? How a couples handles their money can say a lot about a relationship. I often see couples in my practice, where one of the partners insists on having a separate account in his or own name. While under the law all wealth is communal, this separate stash gave this person a symbolic sense of control -- "without a separate bank account, I feel like I am vunerable and lose my sense of independence."
In premartial counseling the question of a prenup often comes up. The idea of a prenup by its very nature calls into the question the sancity of marriage. How can two people make a vow to be together forever if they they have a written contract prepared just in case it does not workout? I often hear, "I just don't find the idea of a prenup to be very romantic." Money can become a symbolic wall that protects individual interests yet keeps a wedge between couples.
Money clearly plays a significant role in how we relate to ourselves and others. At times, our real underlying concerns with money has to do with deeper issues such as identity, self-sufficiency, self-esteem, self-worth, freedom, stability, fear of loss, the battle for control and power and how one relates to mortality.
Perhaps there is more to wealth than money and more to money than wealth. Maybe Henry David Thoreau was right when he said: "Wealth is the ability to fully experience life."
Copyright Nov. 2016, Martin Klein, Ph.D.
Dr. Martin Klein is a clinical psychologist who practices in Westport and Fairfield CT. He works with children, adults and couples.