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Where to Draw the Line with a 'Take Charge' Spouse

August 18, 2017

This time we hear from Katie Brewer, president of Your Richest Life, a financial-planning firm in Dallas. She recalls the time she worked with a couple where the wife was the dominant decision maker.

I live in the Bible Belt and work with a lot of traditional couples where the husband takes charge of the finances. After fifteen years in the business I’ve learned it’s important to get both spouses involved and I’ve come up with strategies for doing so. Recently, though, I’ve been working with more couples where the wife is the dominant spouse, and that presents a novel set of issues.

A couple of years ago another financial planner referred a couple to me. From the very beginning of our interactions I dealt only with the wife. That’s not unusual; in many couples, one spouse will be the point person who handles most of the logistics and planning.

During our introductory meeting, it was just her and me. I encouraged her to bring her husband to the next meeting, however, telling her that even if he just hung out in the background it would be useful for him to see and hear what we were discussing. There can be a fair amount of homework when you implement a new financial plan, and I’ve found it helps to have both people understand the context for all these tasks you’re giving them.

At that next meeting I met her husband, who was also a successful professional. Their interactions confirmed what I had suspected — she was the take-charge spouse and he was perfectly happy to be the laid-back partner. During that meeting, she probably spoke at least twice as much as he did.

As an advisor, I want to engage both members of a couple but I also don’t want to throw off their dynamic. If one partner is more responsible for handling the details and logistics, that’s fine. They’ve found a system that works for them. But over the years I’ve learned there are three areas where it’s absolutely crucial to have both spouses’ input: goal-setting, budgeting and reviewing plan strategy.

Katie Brewer

The next time I spoke with this client we were handling some of what I call “sludge work” — setting up accounts and getting everything connected. When the conversation started to veer toward goal-setting, I stopped her. I told her that her husband needed to be present for any goal-setting meetings. At first she dismissed my comment. “We talk all the time,” she said. “I know his goals. He’s busy. He doesn’t need to be there.”

To be honest, I identified with her a little bit. As women, we have to work hard to be recognized. And for certain personality types it can be difficult to let go of the position of authority you’ve worked so hard to get. I reminded her I wasn’t going to waste his (or her) time by including him on every single email and conversation, but pointed out that it was important to have him in the room for this particular meeting. Once I made it clear I wasn’t going to take any power away from her, she was able to let go a little bit.

When we did finally meet to discuss goals, I realized how important it was that I had pushed for his inclusion. She had mentioned one of his concerns was helping his mother buy a piece of property. For her that issue was relatively low on her list of priorities, but for him it turned out to be his top concern. I wouldn’t have known that if I had only been meeting with her.

I’ve learned it’s slightly different dealing with couples when the driving spouse is a woman. We have to fight so hard to get status in society and at work that sometimes it’s harder to let go.

As advisors, our role is to explain why it’s important that both spouses be engaged, but also alleviate any fear stemming from that loss of control.