Help! My Wife Is Spending Us into Bankruptcy

When is enough enough already? My stay-at-home wife of almost two years isn't staying at home enough for my tastes. Instead she's out spending every last dollar we have and then some. We have credit card bills out the wazoo from her many unnecessary and luxurious shopping sprees. She's even buying expensive purses and meals for her leech girlfriends! I have told her that she can't keep spending like this or we're going to lose everything. She says it's fine and she has it under control and we can pay off the credit card bills over time. Well, it's going to be a lot of time, and that's if she stops today. I'm not OK with this irresponsible approach to our finances, but I don't know what can be done. She just keeps spending and spending, ignoring my pleas for restraint. What savings we had are gone. I feel like my options are to stick it out with this woman and go bankrupt and have our home foreclosed on, or to divorce her, in which case she'll get half of everything I own plus spousal support. She won't acknowledge that there is a problem, so it would be impossible to get her to seek help for something she doesn't see as a problem. What would you do if you were me? —Maxed Out
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Dear Maxed Out,

Thanks for your question. Boy, that is a doozy of a choice: bankruptcy or divorce. Would you rather lose the arm or the leg? It really does sound like your wife has a shopping addiction or compulsion that needs addressing sooner rather than later. As an addiction specialist, here are the (somewhat unsavory) choices I see you facing. The crux of it is this: get help … for both you and your wife. You are in a seriously traumatic situation, facing several imminent losses, and I would therefore suggest you:

  1. Find a couples counselor with experience in addiction. To make sure the counselor has this experience, ask him or her to give you a treatment plan for a couple where one is addicted. A good counselor will ask both parties to get help; a competent counselor understands that addiction (or destructive compulsion such as constant overspending) is a family issue. You are experiencing the trauma of facing bankruptcy and/or the loss of your partner, which is frightening to say the least (and probably causes strong resentments and/or fears, which is but one reason support for you is crucial). An inexperienced counselor will say, “Welp, not much you can do except get a divorce lawyer or cut up the credit cards.” You might want to consult with a divorce attorney, just for information’s sake—like tips on how to protect yourself financially—but I honestly don’t think that’s the most important thing initially. I think the most important thing is that you realize your wife has something akin to an addiction (or manic behavior, which often involves highly compulsive behaviors)—and that you take care of yourself, to ensure you make the calmest, most reasonable decisions possible. Even if she doesn’t agree to the couples counseling, I suggest you …
  2. Get yourself a therapist who understands addictions, for an outlet to vent, complain, cry, whatever … so that you can find some calm and at least passing serenity, to listen to what your heart and intuition are telling you. Otherwise, you will be acting out of reactivity and rage (or terror) and may make rash decisions you regret. Your wife needs help, and for your own conscience’s sake, you probably want to at least give her the opportunity to get help. You can search GoodTherapy.org for couples counselors and individual therapists.
  3. Attend a few Al-Anon meetings. Now, Al-Anon technically is for people who have a friend or family member “whose drinking or sobriety is bothering” the attendee. However, people in Al-Anon usually have very good experience with boundaries, and setting boundaries with compassion and detachment rather than a flamethrower. (Rage and resentment are completely understandable reactions, of course; it’s the decisions and actions taken I’m focusing on here.) You can share at the meeting in a general way about “my wife’s addiction” or talk to people afterward; I’d be surprised if at least a handful didn’t offer some practical, experienced suggestions.
  4. I would also look into a recovery program designed for precisely the issue you and your wife face: compulsive debting. Debtors Anonymous was created to help those who behave exactly like your wife. Here is their website, in case you want to go to a meeting to talk to some members for guidance or get some literature. You can, of course, mention this program to your wife, but I’d suggest you either go with her or go on your own to find out about one possible approach to treating this compulsive “debting.”

You may decide these meetings are not right for you or your situation in the long run, but if you try and listen with an open mind, you will hopefully discover you’re not alone in this, and many individuals and couples have recovered from a seemingly hopeless situation.

Which brings me to the emotional side of this. After you’ve tried some or all of the above, you’ll want to sit down with your wife and say, in as caring a way as possible, you are very concerned and would like her to get help (as in couples counseling or individual therapy). If she refuses, you may bring up the other tough choices you’re looking at. The point is, the current situation is intolerable, and you’re taking action and suggest she does the same. (This way you’re both doing something, and she’s “following along” rather than being shamed or cajoled into anything.) In other words, you feel you both need to do something different or you’re both heading for the poorhouse. You can stress how much this is hurting you. (Use “I feel” rather than “you” statements; as in “I feel terrified,” “I feel hurt” by her unwillingness to stop, etc.) This is harder than it sounds, which is why the support for you is so crucial. Your wife may need your help if she first refuses help then later “hits bottom” in realizing she is in fact drowning.

You may be thinking “why is she doing this to me,” but that might not be necessarily the case, or the whole of it. She may need treatment for mania, or is avoiding some kind of trauma, or is somehow addicted to the powerful “high” of shopping (much more common in our hyper-materialist culture than people realize). But my bottom line for you, since you have so wisely reached out for help, is to stabilize and soothe yourself in the midst of this traumatic chaos, and then have the conversation with her or begin contemplating the hard decisions.

If you want more information or consultation, feel free to contact me. Thanks again for writing. I hope your wife agrees to get the help she needs.

Kind regards,
Darren

Darren Haber
Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
  • 9 comments
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  • Brendan

    Brendan

    July 25th, 2014 at 2:41 PM

    this one hits a little close to home for me and definitely gives me some things to think about this weekend
    my wife has simliar habits and no matter what i say or how i approach the conversation she seems to be oblivious to the problems

  • Darren H.

    Darren H.

    July 25th, 2014 at 7:43 PM

    Thanks Brendan. I hope that some of what I said was helpful.

  • Brendan

    Brendan

    July 26th, 2014 at 1:13 PM

    david it really has been perfect food for thought. we have been struggling with some of these things for a long time and it feels sort of insurmountable right now but one thing at a time right?

  • Margot

    Margot

    July 27th, 2014 at 5:15 AM

    My two cents- you guys need some counseling, together and individually.

    It is clear that your wife has a problem and that her cations are adding major friction to this marriage that is already in trouble. She may not even recognize the severity of her actions yet aas she hasn’t hit rock bottom and hasn’t faced the reality of pain that her spending is causing to the marriage.

    No matter how much you say this to her she may have a better understanding of this if the two of you went together to a therapist so that you can share with her what you are going through and she won’t feel like she is being attacked. This can be like neutral territory for her.

  • veronique

    veronique

    July 27th, 2014 at 11:34 AM

    You do have to be pretty careful in these situations though to make sure that your name is not attached to all of the credit issues that this could raise.

  • James

    James

    July 29th, 2014 at 4:15 AM

    Anyone who has ever even thought that money and financial worries is not the biggest leading cost of divorce is out of their minds because all you have to do is read this and know that for everyone who would ever write in about this there are a dozen others who are embarassed and never would. There are just some people who have no clue how to manage their money and they end up ruining pretty great things because of that inability.

  • Darren Haber MFT

    Darren Haber MFT

    August 4th, 2014 at 10:44 PM

    Thanks everyone for your comments.

  • Josef

    Josef

    August 6th, 2014 at 12:30 PM

    Might be time to play hard ball with her.
    get a lawyer and find out what your real options are instead of just assuming that she would get half.
    Then go have a nice long conversation with her about what you found out and see if she will then come aorund to the fact that your marriage (and her!) have a real problem.

  • Ken

    Ken

    August 6th, 2018 at 11:45 PM

    She does not care. Mine is the same. Sense of entitlement and narcissism. End of free ride. Divorce is next. She is coming out of the marriage with more money than I had coming in. That’s what they do. Once they run out, they are already looking for the next mark. Her behavior has already changed, refusing to spend time together unless she is spending money on trips and shopping. She has already demanded to go to Europe due to Facebook peer pressure. What a basket job. A big trip every year. Shopping every day. Small amount of money spent on groceries that lasts two days. Otherwise, it’s I need to go to a shopping mall or I need to go out to eat. Pre-fix chef menu sound familiar? Michelin Star restaurant or not eating at all?

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