Pete and Jenny were married for seven years when Pete’s job was downsized. He was out of work for eight months while car payments, school debt and credit card bills piled up. Jenny worked overtime and Pete got a part time job at night while job searching during the day. Their personal differences in spending, saving and accounting for money made it difficult to face their money problems. Panicked that they might lose their home, they sat down with a financial counselor and created a plan that cut extras, including their son’s piano lessons, pedicures for Jenny, and Pete’s summer fishing trip.
In retrospect they both agreed it was a time of disillusionment and stress that almost ended their marriage. Tensions erupted in ill-tempered arguments over little things. Anger, resentment, self-pity: they experienced it all.
They also recognized that the crisis pulled them together in adversity. It helped them learn new ways to disagree without fighting andto set priorities. When short on money, they found creative ways to enjoy life and make sacrifices for their future together. They admitted that all of those things brought them closer to each other than they had ever been. Their financial struggle was a life-shaping lesson in what it means to be married “for better, for worse.”
The economic downturn is putting stress on marriages at every income level. Whether it’s a job eliminated in an automobile plant or stock losses in the retirement portfolio, unwelcome lifestyle changes have become necessary for many people. Major economic worries affect both individual well-being and the couple relationship. The apprehension connected with unpaid bills, credit card debt and possible job or home loss seems to bring out the worst in people. Anger about money spills over into other areas. Communication breaks down. Differences in money habits begin to surface and blaming each other erodes affection.
Serious money problems can cause panic and apprehension and bring many couples to the brink of divorce. But other couples are growing through the difficulty, finding ways to use their differing skills as a team to overcome adversity. When I asked couples who survived how they managed their money crisis, here is what they said.
We got professional advice.
The money issue became an ugly power struggle. A financial advisor helped us be objective about what needed to be done. He helped us create a plan and set goals for ourselves. State and local agencies provided free or low cost advice and support to help us meet our goals. Friends of ours read a book on finances and gathered with other couples who were trying to manage their money problems.
On our wedding day, we said we’d be faithful “for better for worse.” This was the “for worse” and we’re better off for having survived it.
We took a serious look at our individual approaches to money because we couldn’t agree on anything.
He’s a saver, I’m a spender. We found an easy-to-use tool, called MONEY HABITUDES, that helped us explore the strengths and weaknesses of our own attitudes and habits about money. Information is available at www.moneyhabitudes.com. HABITUDES helped us understand and respect each other more and it has spilled over into other aspects of our relationship.
We stopped the blame game.
Blame eroded the team spirit needed to overcome the crisis. We were on opposite sides battling each other instead of battling the problem. We started working together on carrying out our financial plan, each making personal changes when needed.
One of the blessings given to us at our wedding liturgy was to have the experience of “two becoming one” in mind, body and spirit. We caught a glimpse of what that meant. We had different ways of handling money, but we wanted a future together and we both took responsibility for that.
We visited a marriage counselor several times.
We were fighting constantly and couldn’t talk without bitterness and misunderstanding. We realized that there were other issues lying dormant under the financial problems. Our counseling sessions helped us recognize destructive patterns in the way we were communicating and treating each other. We were so scared we might not make it, that we prayed to God for help. It was humbling, but critically helpful in getting us through the worst of times.
The current financial crisis isn’t simply a money problem and no one particular strategy works for every couple. Couples may have to explore several solutions or start all over after a failure. But this crisis provides an opportunity to assess and strengthen the relationship. The current economic downturn is a test of the partnership that has been forming over the years and of the commitment to a future together. It measures the ability to make changes in oneself for the benefit of the marriage.
This crisis forces the maturity questions: “What is the difference between what I want and what I need?” “Can I delay gratification out of love for another?”
It raises marriage questions. “Are our common priorities as important to me as my own personal agenda?” It’s important to know my own needs, but essential to create a budget for “our” future. “Can I change my ways for the good of this marriage, this family?” “Do I trust that God is with us in this struggle and will provide help if we ask?”
Money in marriage is connected to everything else: communication, sex, spirituality, health. The rising unemployment rate, crumbling housing market, and credit crunch are bad news, but opportunity lies right beneath the surface of the rough water. The opportunity is to face adversity together, to renew trust in God and in each other and to build a stronger marriage that overcomes the test of time. There is no greater treasure than that.
Mary Jo Pedersen is an author and teacher who conducts workshops and retreats nationally and internationally on marital spirituality. She is the author of “For Better, For Worse, For God: Exploring the Holy Mystery of Marriage.”