Couples and Financial Planning: Of Communication Flows and Gender-Neutrality

Seth MacFarlane made a lot of jokes last night during the Oscars that had a lot of people talking. The consensus emerging among the talkers not pleased with Mr. MacFarlane’s banter was that, yes, he was juvenile but, above all, very sexist, in that the world in which his jokes live and breathe is a world in which females are treated differently — and far less well — than males.

And then today I read an article about how financial advisors should work with their married clients in ways that tend to increase the likelihood that the wife will not fire the financial advisor when the husband dies. The article brooked no Pat nor Randy nor Les nor Terry nor any other gender-neutral name. Rather, it went there, and was all he-this and she-that, and all husband-this and wife-that — all very gender-specific.

For instance, in the article the author, after noting that 70% of financial advisors, “Fail to develop a trusting relationship with the wife during her husband’s lifetime,” continues by suggesting that, to avoid losing the client when the husband dies, the advisor should:

Invite the wife to all the financial meetings and let her know she is an important part of her family’s financial team. While you may find it easier to meet with just the husband, this strategy can be costly as it leaves many women feeling neglected and overlooked.

After reading that line I have to say that I found myself dumbstruck, with my Left-Coast freak-flag flying and my jaw all a’slack, because that sort of thinking and this sort of language is just fall-off-the-end-of-the-earth foreign to me and to the people with whom I work; it’s also, no doubt, indicative of the way many financial advisors and many of their clients think.

Keeping with the topic du jour of the last 24 hours, it occurs to me that some of the more hotly-debated Seth McFarlane jokes would be right at home with this author’s recommendation, which I would summarize as:

Gents, do think about inviting the client’s little lady to your meetings, because that way she won’t feel neglected, and that will increase the odds that she will not decrease your assets-under-management number (and therefore your ongoing AUM fees), after her hubby — the guy you actually like to work with — dies.

We all write for a specific audience, yes? The audience for which this author writes is different from the audience for which I write.

*  *  *

Most of my clients are in committed relationships. By default, in this sort of situation I define “the client” as the couple. I don’t work for one of them; I work for both of them. That is, I work for their “us” — for their “couple” — and not for just one of them. The two of them are a single client-couple.

From this comes my general approach to communicating with the client-couple once we are underway and working together, which is that I always communicate with both of them together (i.e., via three-person face-to-face-to-face meetings or via three-person telephone meetings or via three-person emails) unless (a) they both affirmatively tell me that they want me to communicate with just one of them about something, or (b) one of them tells me that on a very specific topic I should only communicate with that one person (this happens on rare occasions here and there) and the reasons for doing so are such that I’m OK with taking that one-spouse-only communication route for this limited purpose, or (c) I unilaterally decide that it is necessary to do so (this has never happened, but we all need some flexibility in our general approaches, don’t we?).

Most of the couples I tell about this approach to communicating during financial planning work respond with something along the lines of, Of course — that’s the way we would’ve said we wanted it if we had ever stopped to think about it.

* * *

Here is a little mathematics-based explanation for why this always-talk-with-both-at-the-same-time approach is the best way to go. The explanation is a subset of Friedman’s Law of Triangular Relationships, the short version of which says, It’s much easier for a two-person relationship to stay grounded and productive than it is for a three-person relationship to do so.

Let’s begin setting up the explanation by calling one person in the couple A and the other person in the couple B, and by calling me — to just pick a letter — J. And let’s first look at the every-which-way-is-OK communication approach.

If we all talk willy-nilly to one or the other or to both, then we will be generating three different ongoing work conversations, as follows:

A and J are having an ongoing work conversation
B and J are having an ongoing work conversation
A and B and J are having an ongoing work conversation

Note that I exclude the A-and-B-are-having-an-ongoing-conversation conversation because that’s what couples do all the time, and it’s always a good thing, right? In fact, the line of the night at this year’s Oscars was, for many, Ben Affleck’s, when he said directly to Jennifer Garner, his wife — their eyes seemingly locked and tuning others out, though they were doing so in front of a billion or so folks as the Oscar presentation was just about ready to conclude — the following:

I want to thank you for working on marriage for 10 Christmases. It’s good, it is work, but it’s the best kind of work, and there’s no one I’d rather work with.

(The initial version of this piece had a link to a video on YouTube which included Affleck’s entire acceptance speech, but the link to that video is now just a link to nothing. Perhaps the Oscar Powers that Be claim ownership in the video of Ben’s touching words?)

Nice, eh? And for most of us, all too true: we have to work at our relationships and, by gum, are they ever worth it.

Looking next at the all-info-always-goes-to-all-of-us approach to communication, if the client is the client-couple AB (rather than two people A and B) and I am J, then there is only one ongoing working conversation we can have:

AB and J are having an ongoing work conversation

So you can see that it’s easy to keep everyone on the same page when there’s only one client, yes? That’s because there’s only one conversation — one page, if you will — going on, and everyone is 100% privy to that conversation and everyone is 100% on the same page. But once you bifurcate the client-couple into two people, the work can travel along three different communication routes, any one or more of which can get out of whack with the others.

So one reason to think of a client-couple as a single client is that it makes keeping everyone on the same page much easier, and gosh knows that there’s apt to be plenty for A and B to differ on throughout their work with me, so there’s really no need to add to the differing as a direct result of A and B each having different information at their disposal, is there?

*  *  *

Bright readers will have noticed by now that, yes, I am assuming here that having everyone on the same page is a good thing.

That’s the world in which I live and work, and it’s the world in which I hope you and yours (if you are lucky enough to have a yours) live: couples working together to jointly accomplish important life-affirming things.

In keeping with that motif, another reason to treat a client-couple as a single unified client is that, even though both people in the client-couple are (to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the couple) sharing a financial life together, both also know that, on a moment’s notice — just like that — either of them could find that they’re all alone inside that financial life, because sometimes life deals out the ultimate bad hand and, sooner or later, every person in a client-couple will bow out of this mortal plane. Who’s going to go first?

Usually we can never know the answer to that question, which means that both people in a couple need to be prepared — and that means both of them, unto themselves, knowing what’s what.

It should come as no surprise, then, that I’ve worked with a lot of couples for whom a very important part of what we were seeking to accomplish in the work was getting one of the people in the couple up-to-speed about the couple’s financial life (yes, sometimes both people need help getting up to speed . . . that, too, is a common engagement . . .). Demographically, this has usually meant a 60’s-something or 70’s-something wife needing help getting up to speed, but I’ve also seen situations in which it was a husband needing help getting up to speed, and I’ve also seen the need in 30’s-somethings and 40’s- and 50’s-somethings as well. No two couples are alike, folks.

*  *  *

Now, to those of you wondering about the gender of the author of the article quoted above, the answer might surprise you: the author is female. You can look up her name it you like; I omit it here because I do not wish to directly confront her, and also because I’ve admired some other pieces she’s written (did she write this particular piece in the way she did because her intended audience for the piece was limited to backward-thinking males?).

Nor do I wish to say here that there are no differences between men and women. Gosh a’mighty are there ever.

I do mean, however, to criticize the thinking — extant in so many places and perhaps peaking its nose out of that article’s tent a bit — that men are good with financial stuff and women are not. Some are and some are not.

And I do mean to criticize advisors who poo poo the involvement of one person in a couple and who, as a default, sometimes subtly and sometimes not-so-subtly, invite the money-guy in the family into the work while at the same time shooing away the non-money-guy in the family, be that money-guy or non-money-guy a male or be that money-guy or non-money-guy a female.

I, for one, look forward to the day when all men act like women and all women act like men — whatever that all means — and that we end up with the best of both genders for all. Many of us on both coasts — the Right Coast and the Left Coast — as well as many of us in parts between (regardless of from whence you start and regardless of the direction in which you travel once commenced) are doing our best to make that happen just as soon as we possibly can.



Leave a Comment



  1. Posted by TAJ on Monday, February 25, 2013 at 9pm
    Bravo! Well said, and, another good read!
  2. Posted by Me on Tuesday, July 23, 2013 at 7am
    I think you completely missed the point of the article you are referencing.
  3. Posted by JF on Tuesday, July 23, 2013 at 2pm
    Could you be more specific?

    I'm always happy to understand something better.