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October 15th, 2008 Katie Gilbert | News Stories
 

Crunch Time

One more sign of tough times: Counselors are busy with couples fighting over money.

     
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Kelley O’Gorman caught her first whiff of economic turmoil early this summer not from a headline, her struggling stock portfolio or more panhandlers asking for money outside her office in the Pearl.

Rather, the couples counselor picked up on a pattern emerging in her own office.

“I saw a lot more fighting about money as things started to get tenuous,” she says.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who got down on one knee to beg House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to back his $700 billion bailout plan (see glossary below),isn’t the only person scrambling to solve a dire financial situation.

In Portland, many marriage counselors say they saw signs of economic distress in their offices long before Paulson took a knee, as couples from every social strata confront and butt heads over job losses, as well as their own liquidity crunch of loan freezes and dried up 401(k)s.

And the financial stress manifests itself in other ways, says Matthew Stockton, a marriage and family counselor in Northeast Portland’s Hollywood District.

“There’s a greater rate of infidelity when times are bad,” Stockton says. “We tie a lot of meaning and self-worth to our ability to provide. When that’s taken away, especially in a single-income household where one person is the breadwinner, people need to find that sense of gratification elsewhere.”

Mark Saindon, a marriage counselor downtown, says the number of new couples seeking his services has increased, even while his regular clients cut back the frequency of their visits to accommodate their shrinking budgets.

Why, in a period of widespread belt tightening, would more couples be searching out counseling at rates of $100 a session as one more bill on top of basics like rent and health insurance? For many of them, financial tensions are new and mysterious houseguests.

Kevin MacKenzie says he and his wife of 12 years, Lois, have never fought about money—until now. But tempers have flared as the couple gets its first taste of how one risky investment can set a disastrous chain of dominoes a-tumblin’.

To cover the mortgage on their Arch Cape beach house investment, they must sell shares of $250,000 apiece in the vacation home. Unsurprisingly, those shares aren’t jumping off their hands lately. And the vacation home is proving to be a major burden. In Kevin’s imagined doomsday scenario, the couple tries to sell the beach house, is blocked by a frozen market, and ends up having to move out of their primary residence in North Portland. Needless to say, he’s been on edge.

“I got pretty harsh with my wife one night,” says Kevin, an arborist who owns his own urban forestry business. “I said, ‘Goddammit, if we can’t sell shares, how are we going to do this? It’s going to be your goddamn fault!’ I got all mad because of the economy. I got worried. But what if we can’t sell shares in this damn beach house?”

Stockton frames his $99-per-hour expense to his clients as a long-term investment (probably one of the safer types these days). Indeed, spending a few hundred dollars a month on therapy is a bargain if it averts the financial devastation of a divorce or the messy division of commingled assets.

O’Gorman suspects many of her clients are motivated to press on partially for financial reasons, and would have simply cut their losses and gone their separate ways in more bullish times.

“Very often, especially in Portland, one person in a couple is a freelancer or works for themselves, and the other one’s got the insurance,” she says. “What I’m seeing is couples really rallying together, saying, ‘OK, we’ve got kids, we’ve got our mortgage, how are we going to work this out?’”

She adds that she’s also seen a positive sign among clients dealing with mini-meltdowns.

“I noticed couples actually coming together more,” she says. “Not to say that the little idiosyncrasies, like clothes on the floor, don’t bother each other. They just seem to bother people less right now.”

Our glossary of financial terms you should know:

Liquidity crunch: A freeze in the normal flow of money lending between banks. When banks aren’t lending each other money, they’re not likely to loan you money either, and that means governments must stall big projects like fixing highways, companies put the brakes on building new factories, and buying a new house just got even harder.

Paulson’s bailout plan: Passed by Congress into law Friday, Oct. 3, the $700 billion emergency bailout plan’s goal is pretty simple–stop a chain reaction that could conceivably bring our economy to a screeching halt. Its two main tactics: 1) Buying up sour investments from big investment banks (investments so undesired by anyone else that no one even knows what they should cost) to remove blemishes from these banks that are contributing to the liquidity crunch (see above), and 2) Buying a significant amount of stock in some of the country’s banks with the aim of infusing a quick cash stream into the crumbling businesses and reassuring investors.

Bullish: A bullish market is one where stocks are headed upward. We are decidedly in a bearish market, in which stocks are plunging. To remember which is which, picture the attack moves of each animal (bulls thrust their horns upward; bears throw their paws down)

 
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