Why your partners imposter syndrome threatens your financial intimacy

Jan 12, 2023

Navigating imposter syndrome with your intimate partner is no small task. Yet it is worthy of pursuing, understanding, and reckoning with. Imposter syndrome can be the thief of joy and intimacy in all the major domains of your intimate and family life together. Knowing and reclaiming all of our stories is an essential part of navigating imposter syndrome. 


Last week I wrote about how financial planning can evoke the imposter syndrome, and that imposter syndrome is connected with your attachment styles. Then I took it one step further; our attachment styles are connected with our nervous system responsiveness. Working with imposter syndrome means learning how to form and function in secure attachment patterns, which supports a co-regulation of our nervous systems. 


Let’s keep in mind that co-regulation is different than co-dependence, in that co-regulation means there is a mutual awareness of and desire to be mutually cared for and seen in intimate ways while having the freedom of autonomy. Compared to co-dependence in which one person consciously and unconsciously tries to meet and manage the emotional needs of another person, often their intimate partner, in non-mutual ways. 

Knowing And Owning Your Story


I've read non-fiction books about mental and relational health for years. I love the technical details of mental and relational health. That shifted last week when I received fellow Financial Therapist Bari Tessler’s email newsletter announcing her birthday and love for reading novels and the occasional memoir. She reflected that she learns so much from great storytelling. Bari’s email newsletter prompted me to rethink the mix of what I am reading. 


With this in mind and my mom recently shared a copy of Michelle Obama’s newest book, The Light We Carry, I shifted reading gears and started into Michelle’s book. After reading the first few chapters, my mind was primed for more stories.  


Then this past weekend I was walking through Target, and I saw Joanna Gaines's new book The Stories We Tell: Every Piece of Your Story Matters, and I knew instantly I had to get a copy. 


The first chapters of each book have not failed to deliver powerful stories. While neither Michelle nor Joanna have specifically used the words imposter syndrome yet, it is clear they have both danced with the impacts of imposter syndrome. They are both powerful storytellers and live in radically different social environments than the ones in which they were raised. They both have incredible insight and a willingness to explore their own stories. 


Here’s the secret. You are not that different than Michelle or Joanna. Your spouse is not that different from Michelle and Joanna. Okay, I know most of us reading this will never be the first lady or man of the presidential office or run a major media empire. Still, in many cases, you may be trying to transcend your starting place in life, or you have surpassed your starting position, leaving you feeling out of place. Whether that is from a financial, relational, physical, or emotional health perspective, it is still a journey into the unknown and unfamiliar. Our humanity, need to be known and tell stories about ourselves is what we all have in common with both Michelle and Joanna. 


 There is increasing research literature on the adverse health impacts of upward economic mobility. Imposter syndrome is very real and has deeper biological and physiological roots that are interwoven with our mind, relationships and culture.. It’s not all a bed of roses to cross multiple social class lines, despite what many of us would like to believe.  

Reclaiming The Disowned Parts Of Your Stories

The journey of reducing and working with the experience of imposter syndrome is about reclaiming all of your stories. The parts of your life you would rather forget, the parts of your story which you are embarrassed to share. As well as the ones you can be proud of but never told anyone about or received the rightful acknowledgment you deserve. 


 As intimate partners, we have many responsibilities, and one of them is creating a safe place for our partners to own and reclaim their own stories. But here is the trick, you can not do that for your partner until you allow yourself space to own and reclaim your story. 


In reflecting on her reclaiming process, Joanna said, “it was messy and winding and beautiful and graciously revealed about a million wonders. Some of it broke my heart, and some of it pieced it back together. But every part, every note, every memory was woven into whatever came next-and it all felt so well-played. No matter how shameful or embarrassing, how happy or joyful, each chapter was the bridge that led me to the next place I was meant to go… Our story may crack us open, but it also pieces us back together.”


As a couples therapist and financial therapist, I have borne witness to many stories that have first cracked my clients open and then led to them coming back together more fully and wholly. What has been most challenging is helping partners learn how to bear witness to their partner's story without rushing in to fix it, heal it, transform it, or punish the perpetrators of the pain. 


Being seen by our partners in the fullness of our stories and experiencing radical acceptance profoundly deepens our intimacy and becomes essential in reducing the impacts of imposter syndrome. When we are more fully known and not rejected, we reduce the fear of no longer being good enough, smart enough, special enough, or any other performative factor that drives a compulsive approach to life. 

Your Shared Financial Life 

We can start with your financial life and identify places that need help and healing, financial planning often exposes this, but more often than not, we also need to tend to the whole of who each of you are as people. The fullness of each of your stories matters to the way you experience money. 


It is all of who we are and what we have experienced that shapes who we are and how we experience and interact with those meaningful to us. From this basis, we navigate the waters of our shared financial lives. This deeper truth is not one I could even fathom when I first married my wife Ann, and the reality of this truth is one I continue to contend with. 


In a recent conversation, my wife Ann expressed disbelief when she relayed how much money her dental practice had produced in the previous year. Disbelief in the reality of what we have accomplished financially is one tentacle of the multifaceted experience of imposter syndrome. 


In these moments and experiences of disbelief about our financial reality, we have the opportunity to show up for our partners in a way that affirms their journey with money. Showing up with radical acceptance is not easy, and the chance to show up this way is not always apparent when it happens. It can be upon reflection become apparent and the ability to revisit the disbelief of financial realities can be met with compassion and curiosity. 


This example from my marriage is small in the grand scheme of things but shows how subtle the experience of imposter syndrome can be with our financial life. At the more extreme end of the continuum, I have worked with couples where one partner continues to earn more and more money only to have the other partner continue to increase the spending on the house and its status in non-sustainable ways. It creates a vicious cycle of earn more, spend more.


Part of this dynamic can be an underlying discomfort with one partners increasing “success” and the other partner's felt sense of insecurity and uncertainty. Invitations to go on business trips or to travel for family trips to more “exotic or fancy places” sends reverberations through the partner's nervous system that signal this is all too much, more than can be handled. 


Often what happens in this scenario is the breadwinning partner doesn’t recognize the full complexity of what’s happening. They try to solve the problem with logic or just earning more money. When what is needed is compassion, empathy and deep understanding. It often also requires getting to the root of the imposter syndrome, which is unresolved trauma that, understandably, has left their partner with deep insecurities.  


This is not just your journey with imposter syndrome. It is your partners. Your success can evoke imposter syndrome in your spouse. Learning and developing the language of what is happening and finding ways to turn to each other for support is essential to working with imposter syndrome. Creating space to draw forward both of your stories helps the two of you move toward intimacy and relational security. 


Taking Time For Reflection

  1. What is it like to consider that your partner may be experiencing imposter syndrome?
  2. How have you responded to your partner's imposter syndrome in the past? How would you like to respond to their experiences of imposter syndrome going forward?
  3. How is your journey of reclaiming your story going? What can you do to help yourself continue reclaiming your own story and reducing imposter syndrome in your own life? 

I had a delightful conversation with Robert while finishing this blog post at my favorite coffee shop. Once he learned what I do, he shared that he and his wife came from broken homes but have worked very hard to create a different experience for their family. It was touching when he shared that he was honest with his daughter that he was learning to be a father as she was learning to be a daughter. Imposter syndrome did not stop him from owning his journey of exploring what it means to be a father while raising his daughter.


It is okay to be learning how to be financially intimate while living your life. 

Sometimes it is time to take a big step and get the support you need with Therapy Informed Financial Planning.

f you would like to talk about how Therapy Informed Financial Planning can help you. Let's talk

Wishing You Healthy Love and Money,

Ed Coambs 



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