In today’s economic environment, a lot of families can face difficulties making ends meet. And that’s particularly true for younger couples, whose income is often at the lower range, and who are often saddled with heavy mortgages and student loans.
We all know that money plays a vital role in the quality of living. Those who have it are generally happier, have better health, greater longevity, and enhanced status. In relationships, money can be used to show affection and support, and provide a reason to become or stay married. When couples feel good about their finances, they feel good about themselves and their marriage. While it does not guarantee happiness, not having money, or more precisely enough money, can strain a relationship to its breaking point.
When we talk about financial problems, we mean a prolonged money shortfall and heavy debt. The problem with debt is that it lingers. We often face stressful events that are difficult and can cause emotional turmoil, but they’re usually short-lived. When the cause of our turmoil passes, the relationship often returns to normal. Debt, however, can drag on for years. We constantly feel the pressure to make payments, so we’re likely to experience prolonged emotional stress, and stress leads to conflict. Debt that hangs around for a long time can wear down even the most resilient couples.
Some debt is avoidable. Buying a house, for example, is an ideal many couples strive for and most of us feel it’s worth the expense. It can also cement a relationship because it’s a demonstration of partnership and commitment. Nevertheless, such a purchase can create economic pressure. We may find we have to increase our work hours, eliminate other things we’d like to buy, or cut down on doing things we enjoy doing, such as going to dinner or a movie.
It’s avoidable debt that can be particularly damaging to a marriage. We are referring to buying something such as a house that’s beyond our means, or spending money in a one-sided manner (a husband buys a boat even though his wife hates boating). For the former, couples may have cutbacks that are too extreme; for the latter, one partner may resent having to give up something to pay a debt for something from which they receive no benefits. In fact, that kind of debt can tell a lot about their marriage. When one partner puts a couple into debt to meet his or her needs only, there’s some question as to that person’s commitment to their partner.
Regardless of how debt occurs, it can be detrimental to a marriage when it’s extreme. Arguments are hard to avoid, and are often directly about money, such as how much is earned and how it’s spent. These will often include accusations, such as the husband doesn’t earn enough or the wife spends too much, or vice versa. Partners are likely to blame each other for their situation and scrutinize each other’s purchases. They’re also likely to feel less committed to their relationship — when there’s not enough money in the household, it can seem like the costs of staying together outweigh the benefits.
The constant emotional strain can also bring to the forefront other problems, leading to arguments that aren’t directly related to money. Financial problems can affect how we think, act, and feel about our partner in general, causing hostility and marital dissatisfaction. Stressful events affect our moods and make us more sensitive, and, as a result, we don’t think clearly and tend to focus on the things we don’t like about our relationship. If our spouse says or does something we don’t like, in non-stressful times we might let it pass, but under high stress conditions we may not be able to.
Economic problems affect husbands and wives in different ways. Because a man sees his role as the breadwinner, he may think of himself as a failure when he cannot provide adequately for his family. How he feels about himself can then produce a range of other emotions, such as hostility and irritability, withdrawal, and depression, and these can affect how he treats his family.
For women, prolonged financial distress tends to affect how they view their marriage overall. This may in part be due to the fact she’s already overloaded with home-based responsibilities, and adding money problems puts her closer to a breaking point. Additionally, if a wife expects to be financially supported by her husband, when that doesn’t happen, one of the primary benefits she’s supposed to get out marriage is not delivered. From the emotional experiences faced by both husbands and wives, it’s not uncommon for them to gradually lose touch with each other.
For some couples, their financial burdens are extreme and no one’s fault. Devastating illnesses, a bad job market, and the like can destroy families, and there’s not much we can recommend that would solve such problems. However, for those whose financial difficulties are less extreme or are self-induced, it is possible to reduce some of the harm they can do to their marriage.
The ability to cope with such pressures depends on how couples approach them. For one, supportiveness can help limit the psychological impact and make it easier to focus on finding solutions. Secondly, it’s extremely important that you don’t blame each other, even if one partner is at fault. Accept the problem as one you both own, in the manner of a true partnership. Holding onto resentments and anger about your financial state of affairs is absolutely counter-productive. Negativity blocks our ability to think clearly and that makes it hard to work on problems. It can only harm your relationship and still the debt remains.
Supportive behavior and joint ownership of the problem is the first step, but obviously not the only one. We still have to come up with practical solutions to money management. Working together to bring your spending more in line can help you fight off the demons that come along with prolonged and extreme debt. As we’re not finance experts, there’s not much practical advice we can give in this area. Nevertheless, there are many excellent books available that describe ways to budget money and solve debt problems. Additionally, we recommend that you speak to a financial consultant or an accountant who is more equipped to come up with approaches that can work for you.
If you are thinking of spending money you don’t have for something you really don’t need, we suggest you think again. Be realistic about what you can afford. The unnecessary debt you take on might not only prevent you from buying things you actually need, the resulting stress will take its toll on you and your relationship. Besides, the things we buy don’t often make us as happy as we expect them to. After the initial excitement wears off, the pain of the debt will be worse than the long term enjoyment of whatever you spent you’re money on. Nevertheless, if you still decide to take on needless debt, make sure it’s for something both of you will benefit from. While our partner might initially agree to let us spend on something they don’t want, the debt they have to keep servicing will soon make them forget they ever thought this was a good idea.
Link to our book on marriage
Link to our book on emotions