Money Is Never Just Money

Guest blog y Dr. Liz Perle
Author of Money, A Memoir: Women, Emotions, and Cash

Women relate to money much differently than men do. There are many reasons large and small why this is true. When I ask Stephen Goldbart, a prominent psychotherapist and co-director of the Money, Meaning, and Choices Institute, about these differences, he tells me that they are ancient and deeply embedded psychologically and biologically in both sexes. These differences are so old, so deep, and such a part of our basic wiring that they cannot be ignored. "There are strong gender differences when it comes to money -- differences of identity and of historical roles. For men, the interplay of money and love and power has not really changed in thousands of years; they have always been the providers, and their identities and power come from this old survival-based role." 

Goldbart has spent years observing how both men and women commingle money and power, which, he says, they need to do in order to survive. While men directly equate money and power, women, who have traditionally had no access to money, combine the two in a very particular way that has a lot to do with romantic love. 

"Historically, money was melded with being provided for and taken care of. Thus it's a challenge for women to separate out love and money," Goldbart points out. "The degree to which a man provided for a woman has been her sustenance and her life. Therefore, for a woman, a man's success and his sharing of that success financially is more than just what we see in her lifestyle. On an unconscious level, it has to do with knowing that she and her children will survive. When we talk about money, we're talking about providing for basic human needs; this is basic human wiring. And while these providing and dependent roles have changed in the last seventy-five years, to brain stem psychology, that is no time at all." 

The way we're raised also has much to do with the different approaches men and women have to money. Somehow I sincerely doubt my grandmother pulled either of my male cousins into her boudoir and handed them a secret sack with a $20 bill in it. They weren't told that their social and financial security would be determined by their marriages or that talking about money was "not done," immoral, selfish, tacky, or just plain bad manners -- quite the contrary. Joline Godfrey, the CEO of Independent Means and author of Raising Financially Fit Kids, reassures me that my family experience is far from unusual. Godfrey, a financial educator, feels that our culture remains stuck in the belief that we must take care of girls. She observes that we still expect too much from boys financially and too little from girls, and explains that for boys, the issue around money is shame because money is more directly tied to their manhood, whereas womanhood is still very much connected to a girl's beauty and to her ability to connect to others in relationships. Godfrey believes it is easier for women to disconnect from financial responsibilities because our identities aren't at stake if we do. But for boys and men? Money and providing determine their feelings of self-worth. 

My male cousins understood quite clearly that they'd be judged by their abilities to go out, club the money dragon over its head, and haul home that cash. Holiday dinner conversations centered on what happened in the stock market, other people's (lousy or lucrative) investments, football, and "Did-you-see-the-Shermans'-new-Vista-Cruiser?-Someone-must-be-doing-well" observations of others' good or ill fortunes. We all absorbed the import of these conversations, but as in most families, the emotional impact of these messages differed depending on whether you were the girl cousin or the boy cousin. All of us learned that money would determine our social standing and whether or not we were perceived to be "successful." Indeed, we all went on to have good jobs and good careers. But looking around the table, it was clear for the girl cousins that we had two paths to this achievement: We could get there by work or by marriage. 

For the most part, men know that society sizes them up rather two-dimensionally by how much they do or don't make. Most (if not all) men grow up with the lurking suspicion that the job description of "manly man" still includes the task of being the classic "provider." "How do men rank their self-esteem?" Goldbart asks. "By their productivity in the world and whether or not they are successful. Most men would still define success in terms of their work and their finances first and their families second." Goldbart feels that the way men view their purpose and judge their value remains unchanged by the fact that women now contribute to family income. "There was a women's -- not a men's -- revolution," he concludes. 

Although this bottom-line assessment of a desirably successful man is broadening in tiny increments to include the unquantifiable (and uncompensated) nurturing skills of fatherhood, men still understand that their very worth is measured by their financial prowess. They think -- and not unjustly -- that women evaluate them by how much wealth they can create and how much money they can provide. This is something women don't like to admit they do, but Pamela York Klainer, a financial consultant and the author of How Much Is Enough? has seen it for years in her clients. "Many men tend to want to exaggerate their differences through money. Someone has to be 'top dog,' 'alpha man.' It's clear that men use money as a differentiator. They will show their power by buying expensive gifts for those around them to show that they have 'made it.' It's a form of power. Whereas women will use money to form bonds and friendships." 

But it's different with women. We may keep a beady eye trained on the wardrobes and kitchen appliances of those around us, but part of keeping pace with our friends lies in the fact that we don't want money to separate us. Put six women together in a room with a range of incomes, and all will find a safe middle ground in order to minimize our differences. We intuitively know that nothing divides us faster than money. 

Where men use money as shorthand to determine who has the power in a relationship, women will let it be a surrogate for love and attention. This frequently shows up in divorce settlements, where, as Stephen Goldbart has seen, a woman will want a certain amount of money because, psychologically, that money represents all the love the husband didn't give her. In this way money compensates for emotional disappointments. 
Copyright © 2006 Liz Perle