Married to a Shopaholic? Holidays Can Be Tough for your Marriage, Experts Say

If you and your spouse are arguing about how much money you’re spending on holiday gifts, you’re not alone. Experts say it’s one of the main reasons couples argue during the season. And the issue can become an even bigger one if one of you is a shopaholic.

It’s a very common issue over which a relationship breaks up,” said Dr. April Lane Benson, Ph.D., author of the newly published book, To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop.” Benson, an expert in the study and treatment of compulsive buying disorder, said holidays are one of the worst times of the year for people who are addicted to shopping. It’s a high-risk time for many people,” she said.

Dr. Tina Tessina, Ph.D., author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things that Can Ruin Your Marriage,” agreed. If your spouse is a compulsive buyer, he or she is not in control of spending. Compulsive buyers buy things they don’t need or even want, and often have a closet or cabinet (or even garage) full of purchases still in packages, and clothes in the closet with the tags still on. Holidays are big trigger times for compulsive spenders.”

Benson said the combination of the holiday season and the current economic crisis may be adding to the number of Americans who are overwhelmed by credit card debt. According to a recent Stanford University study, at least 17 million Americans are over-shoppers ““ people who are addicted to shopping. Their addiction is adding to their debt, damaged relationships, and depression and anxiety.

A study published last month in the Journal of Consumer Research showed that about 9 percent of the American population could be classified as compulsive shoppers.” The study, by Nancy Ridgway and Monica Kukar-Kinney, associate marketing professors at the University of Richmond, and Kent Monroe of the University of Illinois, showed that people who overshopped got positive feelings from purchasing items. Once the purchase was made, however, they often hid the items from their spouses. When the purchases were discovered, they often became the focus of arguments.

Ridgway said those studied usually battled poor self-esteem, depression, anxiety and materialism. Often, she said, their addiction was linked to impulse control disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder.

As part of the study, Ridgway and her co-researchers have developed a new nine-question test to identify shopaholics. The test, they say, is better than the previous measurement and suggests the problem is worse than previously thought. The questions include measuring such statements as: My closet has unopened shopping bags in it; much of my life centers around buying things; I buy things I don’t need; I buy things I didn’t plan to buy.

One difference in this research: We found that some people can actually afford their habit,” she said. They know they have a problem. They know they need help.” Those people aren’t financially bankrupt. We call them emotionally bankrupt,” she said.

Benson, who works with over-shoppers to provide tips, tools, and techniques to help them overcome their addiction, said the test is a breakthrough that will help more people with the problem. She said the key for over-shoppers is to find out what underlying emotional need they’re trying to fill by overshopping. You have to find out what you’re really shopping for,” she explained. Are you lonely? Are you sad? Are you dealing with a significant loss? Are you wanting to belong to an appearance-obsessed society? And how can you find other ways to meet those needs?”

If you’re angry, you need to find ways to deal with anger constructively. Shopping is not a good way,” she said.

She coaches clients to find out what triggers their need to overshop, identify the consequences of their overshopping and deal with any ambivalence they may have when it comes to curbing their behavior. You have to learn how to (shop) mindfully,” she said. The nitty gritty of it has to do with planning your purchases.”


1. Make a list of your purchases.

Make a list of what you want to buy, so you don’t risk overbuying, Benson said. Be mindful of those purchases. If you begin to see some purchases on your list, you’re moving into dangerous territory.

2.Use unopened purchases as gifts.

If you are an over-shopper, it’s likely you have a closet of shopping bags filled with unused things that have the tags still on them. The holidays are a time when you can use those items as gifts, instead of spending more money.

3.Bring someone with you when you shop.
Talk with someone who understands your problem. Ask them to be your advocate and bring them along for the trip to make certain you so you don’t overdo it, Benson suggested. If you’re the spouse of an over-shopper, Go shopping with your spender.”4.Take away the credit cards.

If they don’t have the cards, they can’t rack up a bill, Tessina said.

5.Get some help.

Your spender needs to be in a Compulsive Spenders Anonymous group,” Tessina said. You need to keep tight control of all the money as long as the compulsive spender is not following a 12-step program.”

By April Lane Benson

1.The good life” comes from doing things, not from having them.
The seasonal holidays, despite the blizzard of buy-messages, are no exception. If you really look at your own experience, it will verify what research has demonstrated over and over: we get far more lasting pleasure and satisfaction from life experiences than we do from material possessions. Don’t fall for the commercialized version of happiness, the hype that’s designed to get you to spend, spend, spend on stuff that you and the people you’re buying for probably don’t need and may not even use. Don’t buy into the equation that what you spend has any relationship with how much you care. You can spend thousands on material gifts that prove worthless, and not a dime on an activity gift that turns out to be priceless.

2. Give the gift of your time. What can you do well?
Teach it to someone on your list who’d like to acquire that skill. How can you help the people you love? What would someone on your list love to have done for them? Does someone need babysitting, pet sitting, computer, camera, or iPod assistance? Give a coupon, redeemable for a few hours of bulb planting or transplanting. What can you share with people who matter to you? Treat them to a meditation class or a museum talk or a ballgame or a beading workshop that you attend with them.

3. Instead of enriching merchants, enrich your own life and the lives of the people around you.
Rather than buying things, do things for and with the people on your gift list “” things that nurture their hearts, minds, bodies, or spirits. Introduce yourself and someone on your list to something that will expand both of your lives. This year, What Would Jesus Buy?”, the hilarious and often thought-provoking documentary about overconsumption in during the end-of-year holidays, is a great choice. You could also sign the two of you up for a live performance, a talk, a class, a course, a retreat of some kind. You’ll find it’s actually an advance!

4. Find creative, imaginative ways to connect with family and friends.

A young child’s introduction to the wonders of the sky “” a visit to the planetarium or an evening spent stargazing “” will last incomparably longer than the newest electronic toy. A novel and carefully planned day or evening will be remembered far more fondly than a purchase wrapped in ribbons and bows, whether a hike to a beautiful vista with a picnic lunch you’ve prepared, or a sunset stroll followed by an outdoor concert, or some down time at home with a movie and popcorn and you. Anybody can buy a given material object; nobody else can offer an experience that you’re part of.

5. Instead of opening presents, open to each other’s presence.

Give the two incomparable gifts of speaking and listening. Take the time to truly share yourself in words, and take the equally important step of listening fully. Celebrate each other with genuine communication, the most intimate of gifts. Another way to do this is to write a letter or poem to someone and read it aloud to him or her; you might even include a photo of the two of you. Try a family vision-board activity. Have everyone cut out pictures from magazines that relate to a short- or long-term vision. Paste them on heavy cardboard and then talk about your visions together.

6. Create a tradition.

Cook or bake together, or go together to a local tree or menorah lighting, or volunteer together in the service of your community. Invite someone to get up early and watch the sunrise with you. Adopt a child together, from an organization like Save the Children; write letters and send pictures along with the money you give.