With money problems in marriage named as the number one cause of divorce, it's no wonder that in difficult economic times divorce rates soar and spirits sink.
Between layoffs, unavoidable expenses, and costly healthcare, there are no surefire ways to protect your money. But there are ways to debt proof your marriage. With the right tools — education, understanding, and communication — along with relentless effort, couples can safeguard their marriage from the stress caused by money problems and make it through unscathed.
When Anna married Mark 22 years ago, money problems in their marriage became a source of frustration before they even returned from the honeymoon.
While Mark struggled to find work following graduation, Anna supported them with a job she hated. After being diagnosed with MS, Anna was forced to quit, and the couple was left with Mark's part-time and temp jobs as their only income source. Credit cards became the tools for survival, which exacerbated both their money and marital problems.
Just six months into their marriage, Mark bought a new computer, what he considered an investment for future jobs. Anna was livid and felt that he took neither money management nor the marriage seriously. When forced to charge basic needs like groceries and shampoo, a computer seemed to her like both an inconsiderate and irresponsible purchase. She felt wronged that he didn't discuss such a large purchase with her before making a decision.
With still no job in sight, the two continued to suffer financially, and the breakdown of communication effectively took its toll on their marriage.
Educate, Communicate, Plan
Anna and Mark are far from alone. Marriage and Family Counselor Chris Berger sees couples dealing with debt-induced marriage problems on a daily basis.
Berger says that lack of choice is the culprit for much of the stress that money problems put on a marriage. When in a healthy financial situation, a couple has freedom to choose how money is spent, both as individuals and as a couple. When debt is in the picture, there is no longer choice. Money must go towards the debt. This causes added stress to the individual and to the marriage.
"Stress leads to anxiety, depression, and sometimes to bad choices like alcoholism," said Berger. "Reducing stress is the key to a healthy, long-term marriage."
That may be easy to say, but in practicality can be much harder. Berger said to avoid money problems in your marriage you and your partner must start with communication.
"It's over-simplifying to say that communication is everything," he said," but in a sense, it is. People who have healthy communication find they don't get themselves into the same situations, including the money and debt related varieties, which people who don't communicate do."
Some things to consider are the ways in which you communicate. Berger categorizes these ways into healthy and unhealthy styles. The three basic unhealthy communication styles are aggressive, passive, and passive aggressive. The healthy style is assertive. "When people tend to be more assertive in their communication, they tend to be more open with each other, and that means that not only do they make better mutual decisions in general but also better decisions about money management within their marriage," he said.
Depending on the personalities of the individuals, some couples may also need to work through certain behavioral characteristics in order to avoid money issues in their marriage. Largely due to family background and upbringing, some people have learned to be more impulsive and immature with spending, while others are mature and disciplined. This means that in order to prevent marital money problems from rearing their head, the more impulsive spender must learn to let the other partner lead when it comes to budgeting.
This doesn't mean that one spouse makes all the purchasing decisions, but that both parties agree to stick to a certain budget. If the situation allows, the budget should include some free money for both individuals to spend as they please without the other's consent, as long as they stay within the monthly stipend.
"Just like businesses have weekly staff meetings, a couple should treat the management of their finances with the same reverence as a healthy business would," said Berger. "This helps avoid misunderstandings and prevents money problems in the marriage. Confiding in one's partner is always the right thing to do."
Unlike hundreds of thousands of marriages in the U.S., the money problems in Anna's marriage did not lead to a divorce.
But it did take years of hard work and dedication to each other, and a budget, to finally alleviate the strain that money problems were placing on her marriage.
After reforming their spending and earning habits and committing to keep the marriage priority above the pocketbook, the two made it out of debt together, with many lessons about marriage and money management learned along the way.
"Our relationship really grew stronger," she said. "We focused on the fact that we had each other, and that was what was important."
With improved communication and budgeting skills, Anna and Mark now make it a priority in their home to bargain shop, put away a little every month, and stay focused on their marriage first in order to avoid money problems.
Anna said, "My oldest daughter gave me a quote that helps me. 'Be strong now because things will get better. It might be stormy now but it can't rain forever.' Focus on what you have, not what you don't have. Focus on your blessings."