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What’s Your Client Really Asking?

December 22, 2017

This time we hear from Joan Sharp, a Wilmington, Del.-based wealth advisor with Glenayr Wealth Advisors. She recounts how she helped a woman come back from the brink of a failing marriage.

Several years ago I met with a woman who was struggling with her marriage and wanted to know if she could afford a divorce. She told me she and her husband had met in college and gotten married soon after graduating. For a while they both had good jobs but when she was laid off she decided to stay at home with her two children while her husband kept working. In addition to taking the lead on parenting, she did most of the housework and managed the family's finances.

The woman’s husband traveled a lot for business and over the years he discovered he had a passion for hiking. He started taking solo vacations to pursue his hobby – sometimes for more than a week at a time. She wasn’t interested in hiking but saw how happy it made her husband so encouraged him to do it. Over the years, they spent less and less time together and gradually grew apart. When both their children left for college he moved to another city to be closer to his favorite hiking spots. She still loved him but she figured their marriage was over.

She had come to me with a financial question but it was clear her concerns were also emotional. From the way she told her story I could tell she was conflicted about the possibility of leaving her husband. Instead of assuming divorce was an inevitable outcome I decided to dig deeper. I asked her what she hoped to accomplish in the next few years – personally and financially. She had trouble with this question. For several years she had defined herself primarily as a mother. Her husband had created an identity around his work and his hobby but now her children were out of the house and she was struggling to find an identity for herself.

For our next meeting I invited her to bring her husband with her. I discovered the two of them hadn’t discussed these issues very deeply. I guided them through conversations about what was important to each of them, both individually and as a couple. Through our conversations it became clear they had different styles of communication. The husband had trouble retaining financial information but his wife worried that bringing it up too often would seem like nagging. I encouraged them to set up regular meetings to discuss finances and had her prepare a list of things to talk about for each meeting.

Over time their communication improved and I saw them growing closer as they became more transparent about their priorities and aspirations. The wife decided she wanted to go back to school, and she and her husband started taking weekend trips together. Eventually, he moved back in with her, and they ended up staying together.

Joan Sharp

This client had come to me with a question about divorce. It would’ve been easy to simply run some numbers for her and provide her with an answer that was purely financial. But it was also clear that her concerns were deeper and more complex. To truly serve her needs I needed to find out what was really motivating her — and she needed to ask herself that same question.

As advisors we can help our clients by creating the space for this sort of open discussion. I want to support whatever life decisions my clients make, but sometimes that means answering a different question than the one they initially bring to me.