Protect Your Relationship in a Bad Economy

If your family's income has gone down and your bills are piling up, it's hard to avoid conflicts at home -- but you can still help your relationship rebound.
Man and woman under umbrella

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A new study about the economy has confirmed what most parents already know: Tough times are tough on couples. "If you're worried about money, your relationship will be stressed," says researcher W. Bradford Wilcox, Ph.D., director of The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. Indeed, when we recently polled married Parents readers about whether the recession had truly taken a toll on their own marriage, 37 percent of them said yes.

Even though we're seeing headlines about a gradual recovery, living with financial uncertainty has become the new normal for young families. There aren't any statistics about the number of couples who have sought counseling as a result of money stress -- if you're worried about putting food on the table, making an appointment with a therapist probably isn't in the budget. Recent divorce rates don't tell us much, either, since they usually dip during a recession because people can't afford to split the assets they no longer have. But fights over money -- making it, saving it, and spending it -- are a key ingredient for marital distress. And with less money to go around, more fights are inevitable.

"Couples, especially those with little kids, have many needs competing for the same dollar, and may not have built up sufficient rainy-day assets to use if someone loses their job," says Sandra Wang, a financial planner in Palo Alto, California, who is also a marriage counselor. It's easy to disagree about whether to pay the student loan, the car loan, or the rent -- or how can you both work when child care can cost as much as, or more, than a second salary.

Kelli Guytan, of Euless, Texas, was laid off from two administrative jobs in the last two years. "We've been married for only seven years, and the hurdles we've dealt with in this short time make it seem like 60," says Guytan, whose husband, John, is an art director for a video-game maker. Their 2-year-old son is in a top-notch day-care program and they've been scrimping to keep him there, but the anxiety about surviving on one salary triggers conflicts. "John's a turtle, and I'm a fox," says Guytan. "When something bad happens, he retreats, and I -- well, let's just say I used to be an actress -- can get a little dramatic. Communicate calmly about money? We don't."

Beth Joy, of New York City, has her own business teaching people to handle their dogs' behavior, but her partner is an attorney who hasn't been able to find steady work since the recession started. "We are so freaked out about what's going to happen that we wind up bickering about things that have nothing to do with money," she says. "We live frugally in a rent-controlled apartment, but it's paycheck to paycheck. Our savings are gone, we have no health insurance, and we rely on emergency-room care for our 20-month-old daughter. It's demoralizing to realize that you've done everything right only to find yourself almost at the poverty level."

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