Handle It: When Financial Troubles Cause Friction In Your Relationship

Miracle of miracles, the current economic crisis doesn’t look like it’s going to saddle you with major financial setbacks. Your significant other, however, hasn’t been so lucky. Whether your partner’s been laid off, forced to take a pay cut, or seen a formerly robust stock portfolio become awfully puny, it’s become quite clear that his or her financial future is looking grim. Though it makes you feel a little guilty, you’re beginning to re-evaluate whether, going forward, his or her financial situation will be able to provide or assist you with living the kind of lifestyle you’d like – or at least to which you’ve become accustomed. Are you being cold and superficial or wise and practical? We consulted Debra Mandel, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of Dump that Chump! for advice on how you should best approach the situation.
1. Let go of your guilt: Before you label yourself superficial, cut yourself some slack. The fact that money is a necessity is one of the earliest lessons we learn, says Dr. Mandel. Therefore, it’s completely normal that in a time of financial crisis in your relationship, you would have some serious concerns. “We also grow up forming many gender stereotypes related to money and breadwinning,” she notes. As a result, financial issues become a hot button if partners have differences in their fundamental beliefs about how money should be budgeted – or their earning potential.

2. Consider whether your concern is reasonable and fair: When people form romantic partnerships, they make spoken and unspoken financial agreements. “If a woman marries a man expecting him to be the primary financial provider and he agrees to attempt to fulfill this role — however they define that together — then it’s reasonable for her to assume he will make efforts toward fulfilling this bargain,” Dr. Mandel explains. Concerns about how a partner is fulfilling his or her end of those financial “agreements” become selfish and unreasonable when variables outside of his or her control interfere with his or her efforts to fulfill them — his company lays him off, she becomes ill, or the stock market crashes.

As an alternative, you should evaluate the seriousness of the financial crisis before you get too worked up about it. “Sometimes people get very anxious when there is a change in financial status and end up blowing it out of proportion unnecessarily,” she says. If your thirtysomething partner has just lost 20 percent of his savings for retirement, and you assume he’s one step away from being homeless, you’re likely overreacting. Eventually, the economy will turn around, and, assuming he finds another paying job, he’ll have many years before he’s done working to replenish his retirement savings.

3. Take a good, hard look at your priorities: Assuming a significant change has occurred that actually requires major financial cutbacks, consider whether you can – or are willing to — re-prioritize your expenditures. “If you feel you can start learning how to appreciate aspects of living that require little or no money at all to enjoy, you can likely make the relationship work,” Dr. Mandel asserts. If not, it may be time to venture out on your own. Remember, though, that the old “Money can’t buy happiness” adage is generally true; as she puts it: “Having money can increase one’s ability to enjoy certain pleasures, but pleasure and happiness are not one and the same.”

4. Ask yourself if you’re willing to work on it with your partner: In a healthy relationship, a couple comes up with solutions and a game plan together. “A solid relationship should not be based solely on one’s earning potential,” she says. “If it is, then it’s not likely to stay afloat during lean times.” If you’re concerned about your financial future together, but you’re not willing to end your relationship as a result, consider having a series of sit-down financial planning sessions with your partner in order to ensure you’ll make it through the crisis he or she is experiencing and discuss future financial goals and methods to reaching a stable place. If you don’t feel doing so would be worthwhile, it may be time to reconsider whether or not you’re truly invested in both the financial and the emotional aspects of your relationship.