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."

Downsized Expectations

Even couples who aren't wrestling with serious money woes have been affected by the recession and are being extra careful about their spending. "My husband is a design engineer at an international telecommunications company, and they've already had several rounds of layoffs," says Ki Desrosiers, of Milpitas, California, who stays home with her kids, ages 1 and 3. "We were relieved that he kept his job, but we're on pins and needles wondering, 'What if that happens to us?' We can't pretend we're immune."

The fallout can be emotional as well as financial. A dad whose identity is tied to his job may be devastated when he gets a pink slip. A mom who dreamed of staying home with her kids may feel shortchanged if she's forced to look for work. Andy Jones, of Austin, Texas, was laid off twice in the last three years from large computer manufacturers. Now he's a stay-at-home dad, and though he's sent out hundreds of r?sum?s and had more interviews than he can count, nothing has panned out. "We never had trouble finding jobs before," says his wife, Heather, who is now the sole breadwinner. "I'm thrilled that my 1-year-old daughter is so close to her daddy, but I'm envious. I wanted to be the stay-at-home parent. Things were not supposed to work this way." These days, the Joneses argue over which bills to pay first, and even about how much gas they can afford to put in the car at any given time. "This economy is sucking the life out of us," says Heather. "I feel like we're failures."

Unresolved money issues can cast a pall over a relationship, making arguments over other issues -- like sex, chores, and why those dirty socks never make it to the hamper -- more likely. And needless to say, chronic stress and parenting don't mix. "Stress actually changes the way a mother's body responds to the demands of young children, making it much harder for her to be patient with her kids," says Melissa L. Sturge-Apple, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, in New York.

Managing the Meltdowns

Although this type of anxiety affects everyone differently, going through tough times can also make a relationship more resilient. "When you're stretched financially, you often realize what's important," says Dr. Wilcox. "For a lot of couples, that means refocusing their energy on making their marriage a priority." Even if the economy seems out of your control, you can take these steps to pull together.

Remind yourselves that this has been a global crisis. History's on your side: Recessions end. Things are slowly getting better. In the meantime, avoid information overload. Watching the news or listening to pundits or pessimistic friends will just sap your energy and leave you feeling tense.

Take care of your health. Force yourself to exercise; take a yoga class (many are free), or at least go for a brisk walk every day. Try to eat healthfully, and if you are not sleeping or functioning well, call your doctor, mental-health professional, or religious advisor, who have all been trained to help.

Stop the finger-pointing. "When you're frustrated and afraid, the blame game can start," says Susan Heitler, Ph.D., a marital therapist in Denver. ("Why did you get an adjustable rate mortgage?" "How much was that haircut?") Better to focus on your own contributions to the problems and how you can help fix them. Acknowledge that with hindsight, you might have made other spending choices, but focus on steps you can take now.

Play by the rules. If you can't speak without yelling or disparaging each other's ideas, table money talks until you can. Instead of wallowing in worries, Dr. Heitler suggests scheduling a daily 20-minute business meeting with each other. "During the day, jot down notes on worries that occur to you. You'll have a chance to discuss them together productively in the evening," she explains.

Keep track of spending. "Most people are aware of the big expenses like their mortgage, but they don't realize that dry cleaning, parking fees, and eating out can really add up," says Wang. She suggests tracking every dollar that comes in and goes out for two months. Then, when you're both feeling relatively calm, talk about what's really a necessity and what's a luxury. Is anything optional, at least for the time being?

Brainstorm income boosters. Get your r?sum? in order, do some research, and consider retraining in a more promising field. Kelli Guytan is taking an online certification course in medical billing and coding and is optimistic about finding a job when she finishes. "People are hiring in the medical field in Texas," she says. "I think that it will turn out to be time and money well spent."

The economic crunch was the impetus for Dina Crowell, a mom of four in Fredericksburg, Virginia, to take her love of baking to the next level. "I'd always planned to start a gourmet cake business when my youngest was out of the house," says Crowell. "But then my husband's company reduced his salary to the point that pinching pennies just wasn't enough to keep us afloat." Today, she is more successful with her own business, Buttercream Bakehouse, than she ever dreamed.

Celebrate your relationship in ways that don't cost much. "My husband and I make a point to spend some simple quality time together at least once a week," says Desrosiers. "It may not sound very romantic, but we have a great time putting on a favorite CD while we organize our family pictures into photo albums and reminisce about all the fun times we've had." They have also started a tradition of baking special desserts for each other. But the activity that means the most to them are the "prediction letters" they've been writing to each other -- to be opened at a particular date in the future, such as their tenth anniversary. "We include details about where we think we'll all be and what might have happened to all of us during the years. It makes the milestones really special for us."

Originally published in the July 2012 issue of Parents magazine.

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