On Money and Marriage: 'Then My Girlfriend Bought Her Husband a Black Rhinoceros for His Birthday'

Amalia Rosenblum, family mediator and couples therapist, explains why it’s important to talk openly about money – both before and after the wedding. She also has some ideas for questions that are important to ask your partner

Amalia Rosenblum. 'While in New York, I got a peek into what today is called the 1 percent'
Eyal Taueg

Amalia Rosenblum, family mediator and couples therapist, Haaretz blogger, holder of a Ph.D. in social, cognitive and developmental psychology. Forty-fouryears old, married with two children. Lives in Tel Aviv.

So, it’s money and not sex that is the No. 1 problem among couples?

“Money is a more dramatic subject than sex and is an even bigger taboo among couples. People make a lot of mistakes with relation to money.”

Put your finger on the problem.

“Money arouses fierce impulses and family arouses even fiercer impulses. When you join the two together, it’s fuel for the fire. And the problem is that families tend to solve problems by not talking about them. Couples who are liberal, advanced and sophisticated suffer from emotional violence when it comes to money.”

Because they don’t want to argue?

“I learned from personal experience that marriage is the biggest economic deal we ever make, and it’s bizarre that most of us are not willing to relate seriously to its economic and legal aspects. When we’re in our 20s, we invest more thought in the question of which car to buy than of how to build an economic partnership with our partner.”

Rosenblum. 'I learned from personal experience that marriage is the biggest economic deal we ever make.'
Vardi Kahana

In our family, it was the height of absurdity, because it was a home where people talked– but not about money. One of our family legends concerns the house my parents bought in Jaffa.”

Your father, the late journalist Adam Baruch, and your mother, the artist Ariella Shvide.

“According to the legend, the house cost 30,000 lirot. My father’s father, Asher Rosenblum, who was a lawyer and the first director-general of the Interior Ministry, gave them a check for 10,000 lirot. My mother’s father, who was a day laborer, came from the Krayot [a cluster of mainly blue-collar towns near Haifa], and pulled 10,000 lirot in cash out of his boot. Everybody contributed one-third. Is that equal?”

You tell me.

“My father thought it was, but for many years my mother carried with her the feeling that it wasn’t fair.”

And that created confrontations between them.

“My parents had a honeymoon that lasted for two years, during which they lived in New York, where I was born in the legendary Chelsea Hotel. But beyond that honeymoon, relations between them weren’t good, among other things, due to the feeling of the class difference they lived with – she was from the working class while he was from the bourgeoisie, so to speak.”

And it was never fully resolved.

“Their solution was not to talk about it, and that led to secrets and lies, suffocation and unease. In the end, they divorced, with the straw that broke the camel’s back being money. And it was not because of a shortage of money. When I was a girl, I remember that my father would hint at things. Every time we went past an empty lot between buildings, he would let slip, ‘Inheritance feud.’ In time, I discovered that he was right about many things. Today I know that when I go to a bar mitzvah and the brother of one of the parents is absent, you can be pretty certain there’s an argument over money within the family.”

In short, talk.

“If we don’t talk about money, it’s problematic and it costs money, and we also destroy the relationship. Of course, it’s not one-dimensional – money always enfolds within itself many other things. In effect, all through adult life, there is an encounter between money and emotions. It’s a crucial encounter and if it’s unsuccessful, we find ourselves dragging along problems. Would you like examples of two or three questions with which new couples can open this conversation?”

Go ahead.

“Do your parents pay any of your bills? Would you agree to accept help from them in the future? Do you currently owe money to any of your friends? Is it important to you to buy brand names? Do you have any savings? Do you think it’s your responsibility to help members of your extended family if they need it?”

Amalia Rosenblum. 'All through adult life, there is an encounter between money and emotions.'
Eyal Taueg

Is all of this meant to be preparation for a prenuptial agreement?

“I very highly recommend making a prenuptial agreement. Until recently, such an agreement was viewed as a symbol of the troubles of the rich. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was something that a wealthy man would do with his fourth wife, who married him for his money. Family reality has changed since then and it obliges a new arrangement – whether this is your first marriage, or you’ve been married before, or your children have fallen in love and you, as parents, can’t sleep at night because you fear that everything you worked for all your lives is going to slip through your fingers.”

They say that a prenup damages the romance.

“People say lots of baseless things – that it’s not romantic, that it’s forbidden to talk about such things at the beginning of the relationship, that it’s only for the wealthy, that it will ruin the relationship.”

And it won’t?

“No, it’s giving thought to the long term, and it’s not anti-love. People are naïve; they think that if you don’t make an agreement, there won’t be an agreement. But actually, if there is no financial agreement, there is a financial agreement – it’s simply the laws of the state. One of the advantages is that talking about a financial agreement forces the couple to hold an honest discussion about money, which averts a lot of friction down the road.”

Does everyone need a prenuptial agreement?

“Unless you’re a couple that’s really starting from scratch.”

Nevertheless, it can create tension and damage a relationship.

“Of course. It’s a sensitive matter. It could harm a relationship but it doesn’t have to. If you don’t do it too late, you don’t blame the parents, you know how to consult with lawyers, and you are helped by a mediator with a therapeutic background – you’ll succeed in disarming the bomb that’s called a prenuptial agreement. This promises you a much happier life as a couple.”

What did you mean when you said ‘don’t blame the parents’?

“There are people who tend to think it’s easier to say their parents asked them to do it.”

Sometimes that’s also true.

“When I was 18, I met my first husband, Assaf Bernstein, who had gone to study filmmaking in New York. I set off on what was supposed to be a pre-army trip, but during those two months, we fell in love and decided to get married. Assaf’s parents asked that I sign a prenuptial agreement.”

Because they were wealthy?

'Family reality has changed and it obliges a new arrangement – whether this is your first marriage, or you’ve been married before.'
NEIL HALL/Pool via REUTERS

“His grandfather established [the appliance manufacturer] Amcor and was one of the leading industrialists in Israel. Assaf grew up in Herzliya Pituach and on our first date, he told me an anecdote connected with horses. It didn’t mean a thing to me. I didn't come from a poor family, it was a bohemian home, we went to afterschool activities, we had clothes, we ate out sometimes, we even flew overseas occasionally.”

But there were no horses.

“There were no horses. And this made me realize that there was a major economic gap between our two families.”

And did you accept the prenuptial agreement?

“Yes, in spite of – or maybe because of – being 18 years old. The thing that turned this agreement into something simple and intelligent was the fact that it was agreed that if the marriage lasted longer than five years, the agreement would cancel itself.”

Why was that so intelligent?

A little male black rhinoceros baby. 'One of those rich-people things'
AP Photo/Jens Meyer

“Because contrary to the stereotypes, it had a good effect on the relationship. Assaf’s parents – his father, the poet and the former CEO of Amcor, Ory Bernstein, and his mother, the writer Hadara Lazar – were my second family. They raised me from the age of 18 till 32. The agreement helped them see that the relationship with Assaf was genuine and to feel comfortable about getting close to me and trusting me. They were good to me; thanks to them and to my sojourn in their high socioeconomic circles, I could live in New York and study for four different degrees, and also while in New York, get a peek into what today is called the 1 percent.”

What did you see when you took this peek into the life of the 1 percent?

“I had a girlfriend who would buy everything for her boyfriend, even a toothbrush. Why? Because he concealed from her that he was the son of one of the wealthiest families in Europe. But after the wedding, everything changed. On his first birthday after all was revealed, she bought him a black rhinoceros, using their joint money.”

A black rhinoceros?

“Yes, it was one of those rich-people things. Later she showed me the plans for their house and it had a mudroom.”

What is that good for?

“She also wondered about that. His response: ‘What do you mean? Where else would you take off your boots after you go riding?’”

Horses!

“In the end, they divorced and she got $10 million. I’ll never forget that she and her girlfriends thought this was unfair and that she was deprived.”

It’s all relative.

“From my encounter with these people, I learned that the relationship to money is not something that changes according to the amount of money you have. Whether you buy your partner a toothbrush or a rhinoceros, you carry along ‘issues.’ Through Assaf’s parents, I discovered a different and daring approach. From my relationship with them, I learned that if we talk about money openly and respectably, we can save money and rescue our relationship. They understood that it’s important not to control your children by means of promising them money. People think that if you give your children money while you’re still alive, they’ll say ‘bye-bye’ – and if you don’t give it to them, they’ll always revolve around you.”

And it’s the opposite.

“Of course. I believe in the saying, ‘If you love someone, set them free.’ I recommend not only a prenuptial agreement but also a divorce agreement in which you also try to preserve a family structure after the separation while thinking about the next generation.”

That is also from personal experience.

“We were married for 14 years, and we divorced when Ella, our daughter, was a year-and-a-half old. Despite the fact that we weren’t of one mind about the separation and we had a certain amount of property – apartment, car, bank account, investment portfolio, as well as a child – Assaf and I reached agreement in a half-hour phone call. Afterward, he opened the Yellow Pages and found us a lawyer, and we dictated to him what to write in the agreement. We went to court and afterward to the rabbinate, and after we got the divorce, we sat at the bar at the Brasserie, drank two glasses of Cava and peacefully went our separate ways.”

So, give us a tip for the newly divorced.

“If you’re facing a divorce and are undecided about how to proceed, rise above yourselves and don’t rely on gender stereotypes. Understanding of and sensitivity to the existence of a female language and a male language can help you create a new, mutual text together that will enable you to embark on your new lives in the knowledge that you are fair and responsible human beings, and that the agreement also reflects admirably upon the good that was – and will be – between you.”

What should be in this agreement?

“A good divorce agreement is one that you’ll never open again. Ella is already 13 and I’m sure that Assaf doesn’t even know where the agreement is. Even back then, I knew he would be successful and truly, since the series ‘Fauda’ [Assaf Bernstein directed the first season of the show], all doors have opened for him. He travels a lot and directs all over the world, and we manage just fine with that.”

So why is it so hard for us to talk about money?

“Among other things, because money exposes the gap between what we think about ourselves and what we actually do. Money is the field in which it’s easy to see how much we are willing to take responsibility, which is one of the hardest things for people to do. Show me a person who feels comfortable revealing the details of his or her credit card bill and I’ll show you a person who knows themselves and takes responsibility for his or her desires.”

And what creates arguments between members of a couple?

“Most of us think that the way we relate to money is the right way – from a totally objective standpoint – and that everyone else around us is wrong.”

Totally objective.

“Sometimes we make a big deal out of a tiny bit of waste and come off looking really awful, but in fact, what underlies this behavior is anxiety that we won’t know how to cope if we lose our jobs or our salaries drop.”

Is there also a [fundamental] difference between men and women in the way they relate to money, or is it all just stereotypes?

“In many families, the roles are similar – men are responsible for long-term financial planning and women for everyday planning, and this apparently produces constant conflict.”

Because the man thinks he’s “bringing in the money” and the woman is out spending it?

“Naturally, this is what happens when the woman is responsible for keeping the refrigerator stocked and making sure everyone has shoes and clothing. Many times, the two partners have opposite styles in this respect, and this is clearly reflected when it comes to money. One common combination, for instance, is of the ‘miser’ and the ‘spendthrift,’ images that get created within the family over a period of years. In Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT), we understand that something that appears to be about money actually stems from a much more vulnerable place. For example, when the man is, in effect, trying to say: It’s important to me that you see the effort I’m making.”

And how are the roles divided in mediation?

“Many times, the woman is the Minister for Emotional Affairs, and she knows what everyone is feeling and what their needs are. The man is Minister of Foreign Affairs, and he knows what the law says; he looks toward the future and he also does all the negotiating for the family.”

How is this expressed?

“Right at the beginning of my work as a mediator, I noticed that men and women behave differently during divorce mediation. They arrive at these critical negotiations with extremely different negotiating styles, even if they have a similar goal: to obtain the largest share of the assets that accumulated during their relationship. Men tend to use legal arguments more easily and to do so, at least seemingly, in a level-headed way. For example, by saying, ‘I was reading on the internet, and I understand that I don’t have to pay alimony to my wife after the divorce.’ As opposed to this, women many times base their arguments on the collapse of the family, in a relatively more emotional way, as in ‘Why are you doing this to me? How do you think I’m going to manage on 4,000 shekels [$1,100] a month?’”

And this harms the woman?

“Mainly the woman, because when the relationship falls apart and they come to mediation, the man already has a lot of experience in negotiating, while she, from her standpoint, has lost her main source of power, that is, explaining to him how he feels. So it turns out that without her, he can’t know how he’s feeling, while she finds it difficult to conduct negotiations. There’s helplessness on both sides.”

Who generally pushes for mediation, the man or the woman?

“We tend to think that mediation is something conciliatory and is better suited to women, but frequently the opposite is true. In mediation, there’s something psychological that tends to favor men due to their ability to negotiate. In addition, feminine morality, which centers on preserving the relationship, is liable to be used as leverage, by way of which women are pressured to sign agreements that are not good enough. And it must also be admitted that the emotional style of argument is liable to arouse reservations among mediators who don’t have a therapeutic background. I’m not trying to frighten women and tell them not to go to mediation; I’m just saying that it’s not simple, and that it would be good if the woman came with someone to represent her. It will work in her favor.”

How can all of this be traced back to the choice of a partner?

“Many times, we choose a partner with a characteristic that also exists also in us but that we were taught to deny, like extravagance. The relationship with our partner allows us to be in touch with this rejected piece of ourselves while at the same time we condemn it. The interesting thing is that we behave in ways that intensify the identification of our partner with the role we assigned to him or her, such that I become more and more like a policewoman, let’s say, and he becomes more and more extravagant. This mechanism is called ‘projective identification.’”

How do you reach financial calm between couples?

“I often recommend to couples that each of them should have a bit of money of their own that they can use to spend on whatever they want without having to give an account, or reveal what they spent it on. This also suits couples with good relationships. The happiest couples have both joint money and separate money.”

Are you in favor of secrets between the couple?

“I’m in favor of privacy, and there’s a difference. Secrets begin in a place where there’s no privacy. Actually, the more one side is walking on eggshells and trying to conceal his or her needs, the greater the chances that there will be financial betrayal.”

What about the classic form of betrayal?

“Betrayal is one of the things about which we have the least information. Assuming that people tell me the truth during treatment, I think it’s less common than what people say. In any case, in both financial betrayal and romantic betrayal, the feeling of the betrayed one is the same: you didn’t see me or you lied to me. There’s more talk about romantic betrayal even though the feelings are identical.”

What other mistakes do we make as couples?

“We assimilate our parents’ attitude toward money from such an early age that it seems totally natural to us. Maybe I’m the kind of person who goes shopping when I’m upset, maybe I think that people who take out insurance are ridiculous, maybe I buy only brand names, maybe I make a ‘for’ and ‘against’ list when I go to buy a baby pacifier – all of these behaviors are examples of influences from the home, which will govern us if we don’t govern them.”

And these are the things that come up in treatment.

“We show couples that their mechanisms are creating complications for them. When they’re stuck and still don’t know how to talk about their more sensitive needs and about their partner’s sensitivity to their economic situation, they are in a state of self-defense. It’s being trapped in a loop in which each side’s method of defense sets off all the other side’s alarm bells, and this simply causes them to do things that raise their partner’s anxiety level even higher.”

When would you decline to treat a couple?

“If one of them isn’t interested, and this you can see immediately. And then I say so. I don’t do therapy if there’s a ticking bomb in the basement. In such a case, it’s impossible to fix the roof. I also will refrain from treatment if there’s an atmosphere of fear between the couple. Beyond that, there are a lot of surprises.”

Such as?

“A couple came to me who couldn’t stand each other but still had wild sex. Today they’re one of my most flourishing couples.”

What do you think about the trend of polyamory?

“It can succeed only if the relationship is strong and secure, and both sides are cool with the idea. It is not a solution when there’s a problem, because ultimately, when one of them gets the full package, he or she will go. Because he or she wanted it all and until that moment, made do with only part of it. Some people believe that sexual development is separate from development as a couple; in my eyes, if the path to the rabbinate passes through polyamory, that’s not good.”