Hard Times: Protecting Your Marriage During a Financial Downturn [Part 3 of a series]

Sometimes couples may feel they’re on the same money trail until an unforeseen event occurs. Whether it’s a sudden increase in expenses brought about by illness, childbirth, or damage to your car or home, you may abruptly discover that the two of you are miles apart. Maybe you’ve never before had your expenses outpace your income and you suddenly realize that one of you is all too ready to borrow at a high interest rate while the other one would rather scrimp and change your lifestyle. In such a scenario, it may feel like you are headed in opposite directions.

Even when you’re both on the same page about needing to cut back, you can still run aground. For example, you want Ed to forego his weekly poker game and he wants you to give up your expensive haircut and weekly manicure. Before you know it, you can feel like you’ve entered a bidding war to get your “project” approved. At such moments it’s helpful to slow down your discussions and remain respectful and receptive to each other’s perspective.  Take the time to explore together why certain purchases matter to you and refrain from making sudden or impulsive decisions. Have conversations geared toward understanding each other’s wishes and concerns and hold off on arriving at a decision about choosing which items will get your approval.

Job loss or career instability poses a challenge for any marriage. Couples are often required by a financial downturn to face a sea of change involving both practical and emotional upheaval. Many marriages ride out these difficult circumstances only to collapse once everything is back in place. In addition to the need to renegotiate a budget, or in the case of some couples to set a budget for the first time, hard times may require a revision in long-term planning and even the forfeiture of long-held plans and dreams.

Secret resentments sometimes surface during such times. A wife who for years has harbored resentment at postponing her professional aspirations may react with anger rather than understanding when her husband loses his job or has his hours cut back. A laid-off husband who forsook his vocational passion in favor of professional and financial security may express bitterness at now having to rely on his wife’s income. Instead of appreciation, feeling vulnerable and dependent on a spouse can lead to this sort of reactive defensiveness.

The Colluders
All too frequently, couples fail to address their financial issues, either alone or together. It’s common for them to act as though all is well and to seek reassurance from their partner that this is in fact so. So the couple that is struggling to pay their monthly bills somehow manages to take a Caribbean vacation. If neither partner challenges the financial soundness of the plan, both can live a while longer in denial. Running up credit card debt or refinancing the house perpetuates the myth that all is well. Plus, the immediate gratification that material goods/trips/fine dining provides serves to perpetuate the cycle.  To challenge this fantasy by highlighting the reality – by doing a spreadsheet or piling up stacks of bills – is a difficult role to take on. Maintaining a sense of marital harmony and the fantasy of endless possibilities is highly seductive for both parties. Unfortunately, it often takes an external force (such as creditors or the threat of foreclosure) to break the spell.

The Colliders
Unlike the colluders, the colliders are constantly at odds about their financial goals and realities. With the loss of a job, one partner becomes the voice of caution and doom, at every juncture reminding her spouse of foolhardy purchases and highlighting her thriftiness or perhaps summoning images of ruin. Meanwhile the partner expresses optimism and a seeming reckless approach to financial decisions. In this scenario, both partners are desperately seeking reassurance that all is well but are approaching the issue from opposite sides. I often encourage such couples to switch roles and observe what happens. Most are surprised to discover that their partner has become a spokesperson for their own doubts and fears.

Clearly the most important step for a couple facing a job loss or financial uncertainty involves facing the reality of their situation. Some couples may need the intervention of a debt consolidator or other consultant to support them during this initial phase. If spending money veers into the compulsive end of the spectrum, enlisting a psychotherapist or joining Overspenders Anonymous or a similar group in order to address this behavior is key. Whether you are talking about shopaholics who get a rush out of unnecessary purchases, or more obvious problems connecting to money such as gambling or reckless speculation, don’t expect to be able to handle these challenges within the confines of your marriage. You cannot rid your partner of their spending addiction; that is his or her responsibility!

Couples grappling with these circumstances do better when they experience themselves as team players facing a common foe, be it an overly demanding boss who keeps expecting more output for less compensation, or creditors who remind the couple that their financial security is at risk. Some successful couples report using the additional time that unemployment temporarily affords them to explore together new interests (hiking, gardening, and other low-cost activities are good examples). While shifting to a bare bones budget is a hardship, with some effort it can become an opportunity to reconnect with your partner more directly, without relying on the glitter provided by expensive restaurants, jewelry and other materials gifts.

For couples for whom money has become the primary stumbling block in the relationship, learning to plan better and to develop a sound structure around discussions relating to finances is essential. Sometimes, consulting with a debt consolidator or a financial planner, while costly, can provide this necessary structure.

In addition to the very real, practical considerations that arise during tough financial times, it helps to recognize that money issues often link into some deeper emotional layers. For some, financial security is a way to manage emotional security needs. In our culture, it is especially men who look to professional and monetary success as a reflection of self-worth. Some believe that they can only win the love of a partner by, in a sense, purchasing it.

A colleague of mine described a client who came to him after becoming profoundly depressed following a bumper crop year in which he generated $5 million in income. Prior to this achievement, this man had always assumed that that number represented his marker of success. He was disturbed to discover upon reaching it that he continued to feel inadequate and unfulfilled and that now $10 million presented itself as the ultimate test of his self-worth. While this in an extreme case, do you see some of yourself in this example? If so, when the money no longer rolls in and financial instability sets in, you too are liable to become emotionally insecure in your relationship. Sharing this vulnerability with your spouse will help you from drifting into depression or acting out in order to shore up your self-esteem.

For men in particular, most societies have forged a strong link between money, power and prestige. Even now as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, men on average feel the pressure and the allure of money in distinct ways. While women generally manage the day to day finances in families, including balancing the checkbook and paying bills, in 3 out of 4 marriages the man is still the one to focus on long-term financial planning and investing.  Some men who experience a kind of pride or protectiveness around this responsibility steer their wife away from any talk about money. To them I give this note of caution: share the road! While it’s not essential for you both to know the ins and outs of your finances, this is an important area in which to maintain mutual respect and to affirm each other as peers and partners.

Part 1 – Relationship Money Matters
Part2 – Steering Clear of the Marital Money Pit

© Copyright 2011 by Suzanne Burger, Psy.D., therapist in Pound Ridge, New York. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Gwen


    October 11th, 2011 at 4:05 PM

    I never gave much thought to what kind of a role money played in my marriage until my husband lost his job and we found that we did not have that much of it to throw around anymore. Like so many others we spent pretty much everything that we had, rarely saved, and were blindsided when he lost his job in the recession. We thought that it would be pretty easy for him to find another job- he had so many great job skills that so many employers would naturally want. But it has not been that easy. And now the unemployment checks are about to run out, and you kind of see really quickly how important it is to be on the same page financially with your spouse. I am hoping for the best but preparing for the worst, and right now just doing what we can to keep the marriage intact.

  • Brandi


    October 12th, 2011 at 4:15 AM

    My 1st marriage was a disaster and a lot of it was because of our differing views on money and how we should use it. I am a spender, I admit it, but I have never spent beyond what I could afford to spend. I pay cash, but I like to spend it. My ex was a saver to the extreme and never wanted to go off budget at all. That made me crazy and in hindsight I guess I made him crazy with my spending habits too. So I can’t say that it was a bad thing that we had to part ways but it is kind of sad to think that had it not been for those money issues that we would probably still be together.

  • Jason


    October 12th, 2011 at 10:32 AM

    My friend and his wife divorced two months ago. And the main reason for it was money. they would never agree on things related to finances and when there was a threat of foreclosure they filed for divorce.
    I think it would be a much better option if people also talk about finances in addition to the many other things before getting married. Not an easy subject to talk about but it has to be done to prevent things like these.

  • Paula


    June 18th, 2014 at 11:16 PM

    My husband worked for his dad. The business failed. FIL had promised the business to my husband but then made really bad decisions in liquidating the business. There was certainly not much to live on and the money we’d put back for college expenses and retirement found its way to the black hole. My husband reacted to the business failure by having a breakthrough grand mal seizure. He was placed on disability. Thankfully, I was moved to another job with more income opportunities. We’ve had car wrecks, insurance has been canceled and I ended up having surgery which threw us into bankruptcy. We have had blessings in this situation. However the control issues over every penny really is taxing. We have learned to do without but I am sure there is more we could cut. I know what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. I must be iron clad by now but I’m afraid my tears will make me rust. Thank you for letting me vent.

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