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Hill: Plenty of folks are feeling pain of this recession

Feeling depressed these days because the few dollars you have aren't going as far as they used to?

Feeling guilty because the subprime loan you took out to buy that dream home is resetting to much higher monthly payments?

Feeling anxious about where your next paycheck is coming from with unemployment rising and rumors of layoffs swirling?

Feeling fearful about the future and the welfare of your family amid all the economic turmoil?

Feeling bitter about what's happened to you financially and all that you've lost since the meltdown?

If your answer is yes to any one of these questions or, heaven forbid, all of them, there's one consolation. You're not alone. There are plenty of people in the same leaky boat, according to marriage and family therapists in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. Some say they have seen their caseloads triple in the past year.

Lack of money, increasing debt, threat of foreclosure and other personal financial issues are a primary cause of stress for adults. It can destroy individuals, couples and families almost as fast as the recession wiped out financial security for a broad cross section of the public.

Money issues are particularly hard on marriages. "They often are grist for the mill when it comes to disagreements between husbands and wives," said Karen L. Gordon, a Modesto marriage and family therapist.

She said concerns about money frequently come up with couples who are struggling with other issues, Gordon explained. Often disputes center around who controls the money, who makes the decisions and who's to blame for what happened.

The big problem for many couples is a lack of communication about everything, not just money. "You can't find a solution if you're not talking," Gordon said. Communication is the key, she insisted, but it has to be the right kind. It must be done in a safe environment, where personal attacks and recriminations aren't allowed. "You have to take the blame out of it and honestly assess what's going on."

But people are having a hard time doing that because for many, who they are was defined by what they acquired.

Clearly, people were living beyond their means, but they didn't see it that way. There was a sense of entitlement when it came to getting things: cars, boats, jet skis, designer fashions, electronics, jewelry and, of course, property. It didn't matter that it was built on a house of credit cards -- and risky loans.

James Henman, who has a doctorate in psychology and is a member of Psychological Associates in Modesto, says this sense of entitlement developed over decades as the economy provided higher and higher standards of living, despite occasional down cycles. "There was a view that things would only get better," he said.

People who thought they always would have the same job and a secure financial future got caught up in the materialism that was sweeping the country and became victims of their own expectations -- expectations that had to be fulfilled at any cost.

"Expectations, not experiences, create resentment and bitterness," Henman said. Those are two emotions he's seeing plenty of these days.

Many people aren't able to acknowledge that greed got the best of them. Instead, they are looking for someone else to blame. "Being the victim won't move you forward," Henman said. "But if you learn from your mistakes, then you've got something valuable."

Marla Arata, a marriage and family therapist with Psychiatric Medical Group in Modesto, sees a lot of clients who feel guilty about the reduced financial situations they're in.

Arata said people realize they made mistakes and feel they let their families down, especially those who are the breadwinners. Although many feel misled by those they did business with, they also recognize they didn't read carefully enough or understand clearly enough what they were agreeing to.

People who come to that realization are determined not to fall into the same trap in the future. Arata thinks they are likely to be more cautious when it comes to handling their finances, including educating themselves on what their rights and responsibilities are.

Getting to that point won't be easy. Gordon, Henman and Arata acknowledge that there's still an enormous amount of emotional pain for people to work through.

The good thing is they can make a fresh start. To survive financially, many had to shed most of the "keeping up with the Joneses" stuff and attitudes that got them into trouble in the first place.

That should allow them to refocus on the things that are really important, the therapists said -- bike rides, walks and other activities that bring families together and promote interaction. And all at the right price: free. The more people talk, the better they communicate and the less they're stressed.

"People have to change their mind-set about how they live," Gordon said. "There was a false standard of living, a sense of entitlement to live high on the hog. Now people can reprioritize and refocus on what's really important."

What's that? How about building strong relationships with family and friends, something that holds its value much longer than the cars, houses and other accumulated stuff.

"Realizing 'I'm not my income' is very healthy," Henman said. "Your value as a person has nothing to do with how much money you have."

Bee business editor David W. Hill can be reached at dhill@modbee.com or 578-2336.

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