Any couple in a long-term relationship will face problems they’ll need to overcome. Disagreements about family, child-rearing, or social life are some common examples. Perhaps one of the most difficult situations, however, is when a couple is facing financial issues.

Money and financial stress top the list as one of the biggest triggers for arguments in almost any marriage. In fact, financial strain is often cited as a contributing factor in many divorces, which is doubly unfortunate since divorce on its own can cause severe financial hardship for both partners.

The truth, however, is that the financial problems themselves aren’t the biggest threat to the relationship. It has much more to do with how a couple got to this point in the first place, how they handle the financial issues they’re now facing, and the effect they allow them to have on their relationship.

How You Got There Matters

Not all financial issues are created equal. For example, a couple that faces hardship due to circumstances outside of their control may face slightly fewer problems within their relationship than the couple experiencing financial infidelity.

Financial infidelity is when one partner hides financial information or decisions. Perhaps they spend irresponsibly, fail to pay the bills for which they’re responsible, or rack up debt that can’t easily be repaid, all without the knowledge of their partner. Eventually, this behavior is likely to lead to big problems for the couple’s financial life as well as create many additional issues within the relationship as the deception comes to light. Even the relationship health of a financially stable couple will suffer when one partner commits financial infidelity.

Couples that fall into hard times due to external circumstances, like a job loss, or unexpected expenses such as medical problems or household or automobile repairs, can still find their relationship quite stressed. In this case, however, the compounding problem of deception doesn’t play a role.

Effect of Financial Issues on Your Relationship

Financial issues put a heavy strain on a relationship and can change the manner in which partners relate to one another. They can also become such an immediate and intense point of focus that all regard for the health of the relationship is forgotten while the more practical matters of money and bills are attended to.

This is where many relationships begin to see cracks. It’s extremely easy to allow the burden and urgency of financial problems to eat away at was once likely a stable and loving relationship. The stress of how to make ends meet can spill over and break down each partner’s emotional stability and feelings of love they have for one another.

I see this in my marriage counseling practice daily. Some of the most common effects of financial distress on a relationship that come up include the following.

    • A break in trust. Even if the money problems aren’t a result of financial infidelity, struggling to manage the day-to-day bills and stay afloat can make partners start to second guess each other’s decisions, motivations, and undermine trust. Partners may start questioning each other’s priorities when it comes to spending. “Did you really need to get your nails done?” or “How much did you spend having drinks with the guys?” Even choices on name-brand toothpaste or toilet paper may come into question. If the problems are due to mismanagement and deceit by one partner it can feel impossible to trust them again with anything of great importance – like the family’s financial safety.
    • Blame. Along with a break in trust comes blame. We naturally want problems to be someone else’s fault. When it comes to money problems many partners begin to look for ways to blame the other for the situation they’re in. In some cases, there is one partner clearly more at fault than the other. In most cases, however, better financial choices could probably have been made by both.
    • Guilt. There can be a heavy feeling of guilt felt by one or both partners, especially if family health, safety, or comfort is compromised. Even if those basics are secure, a parent’s inability to give a child certain opportunities or niceties can lead to significant guilt. Eventually, these feelings of guilt can be tied to feelings of self-worth and can even contribute to depression.
    • Breakdown in communication. One of the largest effects of financial stress is without a doubt a breakdown in the ability of couples to effectively communicate with one another. Unfortunately, in times of difficulty, communication is the most crucial skill needed in order to weather the storm.

These are not all the effects financial problems can produce, but they are broadly the most common. I say broadly because each of these can manifest differently for the individual and each can have effects of its own that further compound the problems already being experienced.

Maintaining Your Relationship During Financial Turbulence

Finding a way to financial health is crucial, but even more so is maintaining the health of your relationship, especially if there are children involved. Allowing your relationship to break down will not only be painful and problematic for you, but it can also be devasting for kids. Even if you think you are shielding them, children are a tune to strain between their parents.

Couples often come to counseling in what they see as a last-ditch effort to save their relationship, but what most don’t act on earlier is taking steps to prevent themselves from getting to a “last-ditch” point. This isn’t to say they would have avoided counseling altogether but coming to counseling for help is a better place to start than coming out of desperation. Once a couple has gotten to this point you can be assured that family life is suffering in many ways – not just financially.

The most important measure any couple can take to maintain the health of their relationship is to constantly look for ways to maintain or improve communication. This needs to be done during good times and bad. Communication skills are like muscles, if you stop working on keeping them fit they will weaken or atrophy. When that happens, it can take much time and effort to get those skills back in shape.

Focusing on honest, productive, and consistent communication, especially as you are dealing with financial problems, is a non-negotiable if you are to maintain your relationship and work as a team. That can feel particularly difficult if your main focus is keeping the bills paid, but things will only worsen if your relationship falls apart as well. So, as hard as it may be, if you’re feeling the pressure and stress of financial problems, pause for a moment and consider all the aspects of your life including your relationship and family. Then give some thought to how you can minimize the additional damage that can be done when you allow the financial problems to tear those relationships apart.

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