Friday, June 22, 2007

The Spouse of a Trader: What Makes Marriage Work

In past posts, I've written about daughter Devon (above, front left) and her principle, and I've shared the story of son Macrae (above, front right) and our multicultural experience. This one is about the mom, Margie (right rear) and what it takes to succeed as the spouse of a trader. (Mad props to photographer Rob Grego for the Vermont stream shot).

Much has been written about trader personality and what it takes to succeed in markets. I can't say I've encountered any serious discussion of the psychology of the trader's spouse. And yet, my work with professional traders suggests that trading can take a meaningful toll on spouses and marriages.

The fundamental challenge, I believe, is that traders are rewarded for sound decision making under conditions of risk and uncertainty. These very conditions ensure that traders do not have regular, predictable earnings streams. When I was teaching full time in Syracuse, I had a fixed salary and a tenured position with the medical school. While Margie and I certainly dealt with other challenges, money was not one of them. We had fine employee benefits, two secure incomes (she was a tenured teacher at the time), and very reasonable living expenses.

The trader at a professional firm (investment bank, hedge fund) will typically have a base salary, but most of potential earnings will come from performance. Because these firms are often located in such high living cost locales as Manhattan and suburban Connecticut, the base salary is not perceived as adequate total compensation. Many proprietary trading firms have no such salary structure at all. At best, they offer a "draw" against future profits that must be repaid eventually. Too, the proprietary firm may very well not offer full benefits to its traders, as they are customers of the firm (the prop shop acts as their broker), not employees.

It's when the trader is self-employed and independent that we find little financial security whatsoever. There are no benefits and no income guarantees. The risk and uncertainty in markets create risk and uncertainty for family income. Very, very often it is the spouse--concerned about children and home--who suffers from this uncertainty. The trader may thrive in such an ambiguous environment; the spouse/significant other often does not.

Research tells us that the absence of perceived control over outcomes is one of the most crucial mediating conditions of psychological stress. The spouse of a trader has no control over markets, trading results, or monthly income. I've generally found--even with traders who have had careers spanning decades--that their income levels are cyclical: there are lean years along with good ones. All too often, couples make financial decisions during the flush times, only to experience pressure when market trends and volatility shift.

Yet another challenge faced by the trader spouse is that one of the qualities that makes for trading success--the ability to absorb oneself in markets--is also a quality that can pull the trader away from family involvement. The trader may come home to relax, zone out, and then prepare for the next day; the spouse may be looking for interaction, help at home, and involvement with the children. Many traders describe trading in terms of pursuing a dream. Too often, while one partner is pursuing the dream, the other is getting by from day to day keeping up a home, making ends meet, and providing a stable income. Rarely does the trader realize that the spouse may desire a different dream: one based more on the factors that initially produced the marriage vows.

One of the most common problems I hear from married traders is that bringing trading stresses home creates problems with the spouse. It creates problems precisely because the absorption in those problems prevents the trader from fully participating as a partner and parent. Over time, that can only lead to conflict and resentment. It is in such a situation that spouses then find it difficult to be supportive of their partner's challenges. Many times I've heard that traders dread coming home after a losing day, fearing recriminations from a stressed-out and undergratified partner.

I asked Margie for her view on the most important quality of a trader spouse and she immediately responded: "resilience". By that, she meant the ability to ride bad times with good and maintain some emotional distance--and even a sense of humor--through the challenging times.

And yet, I believe there is much traders can do to promote the resilience of their partners. Two principles that make marriage work in general are especially crucial to the well-being of the trader spouse:

1) Take Responsibility For Your Partner's Well-Being - Where I've seen the marriages of traders work out very well, it's been because the trader has gone the extra yard to ensure that the spouse has a career or other outlets for involvement and expression. The trader has picked up the slack at home, enabling the spouse to also participate in fulfilling activities. The trader has also made particular efforts to not bring trading pressures home and to ensure that there is enough "rainy day" capital at home to weather lean market conditions. In turn, the spouse has sustained the self-sufficiency to allow the trader to have time at home to engage in research or just unwind from a tough day. When the marriages have worked out, the trading career has been a partnership, not just the trader's job.

2) Find The Best In Your Partner - Psychologist John Gottman has found that four patterns of communication predict divorce with 91% accuracy: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. Successful couples view their past positively and view each other's character with admiration. Unsuccessful couples attribute problems to flaws in the spouse's personality and character. They see the worst in each other. To a successful couple, a flaw may be a lovable quirk; for the couple headed toward divorce, it is an insurmountable gap. Among the keys to marital success mentioned by Gottman is the ability to create shared meaning. The spouse is not going to be a trader in most cases; nor will the spouse necessarily have an interest in markets. It is crucial to have a shared sphere of interest and activity that continually yields fresh experiences of intimacy. These shared interests will also enable each member of the couple to direct perceive the best in each other.

I did not learn these things from my graduate training as a psychologist. No, I learned them by observing Margie, who is easily as good as being a mother and spouse as I am at being a trading psychologist. This post is for her and all she's done to sustain close to a quarter century of happiness through many personal and joint ups and downs. When we had our wedding rings engraved, we chose the phrase "Perpetual Passion".

It's a formula for success in love as at work.


A Dozen Reflections on Life and Markets

What Trading Teaches Us About Life



MIsstrade said...

Flowers and nice words occasionally aren't a bad idea either. Great writing, I just sent it to my spouse. Fantastic prose.

Brett Steenbarger, Ph.D. said...

Thanks Misstrade,

I think the key is making a partner feel special. And flowers and nice words do a fine job of that!


amaranth said...

Dr. Brett,

We don't always appreciate the treasures we have right in front of us, our children and spouse, in our pursuit and passion of the trading game.

Its good to step back and be thankful for the blessing of our family, for their support and love.

You are a blessed man with those fine children and spouse !

Thanks for all you do to share your time with us !

Dinosaur Trader said...


Thanks for that post. Really a great topic and one that is underexamined.


Kevin said...

Brett, I spent 15 years in the pits and would have been happy to finish my career yelling and screaming. Unfortunately, they moved my cheese by moving the volume to the screen. My unsuccessful attempts to transition to electronic trading were financially crushing and extremely stressful on my marriage. In retrospect, I was guilty of the things you talked about in this post.

I've been out of the markets for several years now, but I'm starting to get "the itch" again. (You can take the trader out of the markets, but you can never take the markets out of the trader!)

The increased volumes of screen trading combined with the CME-CBOT merger has resulted in certain conditions that lead me to believe they've moved my cheese all the way back. The other day I had a good conversation with a potential backer, another professional trader. Today I'm putting my plan on paper to advance the discussions.

My wife has trepidations about this potential career move, but she also understands I am far more passionate about trading than anything else I could be doing to earn a living. I printed out your article for her and told her I now understand the mistakes I made in the past and the things I need to do in the future.

She's still skeptical (I'll need to "walk the walk, not just talk the talk" before that changes), but I believe you've given me a blueprint for trader/spouse success. Thank you, awesome post.

Brett Steenbarger, Ph.D. said...

Thanks for the note, Kevin; best of luck to you and your wife--


tippet said...

One aspect of our life as a trader which I very rarely hear mentioned is how lonely and isolating it can be the pits the social interaction was a huge part of the experience a screen trader working from ones home office that much as I'm fortunate enough to be a part of a very small tight group of online traders that have managed to trade together for years that experience still doesnt make up for the lack of physical social contact. The unconscious needs we place on our families to fill that void end up putting additional pressure on our marriage... just something to keep in perspective...

Gustavo's Trades said...

Fantastic post Brett! Thank you!

A week ago I decided to re-balance my life, I was dedicating too much time to trading and not enough time to myself (health) and my family. I now have a clear plan and way to balance things out.

You are also Righ on the spot when you say that success in trading is a PARTNERSHIP! The spouse must be part of it,

Life balance must be present and must be constantly "checked" and measured against. Very much like we check our trading performance.

Take care!