Communication is key for couples in trying financial times
Contra Costa Times (MCT) - Before the recession and before they had kids, Ben and Andrea Bidwell loved going out to dinner and catching a show in San Francisco. They had dual, full-time incomes, and the economy had yet to tank. Now, three years later, their lifestyle has shifted a bit.
But the San Ramon, Calif., couple's bond is stronger than ever. While the economy is affecting the Bidwells, who are in their 30s, they are able to cope partly because they have always been money-conscious, Andrea says. After she had children, Andrea traded her full-time job for tutoring. But now, she is seeking part-time teaching positions to help safeguard their finances. Plus, she and her husband talk about everything.
"Communication is huge on our list," Andrea says. "There's an unspoken expectation that if one person is going to spend money, the other person knows about it. That said, I've been known to come back from a Target run with a T-shirt and hide the bag."
Money tops the list of issues that cause marital friction. When it comes to cash, a recent Gallup poll revealed that couples questioned about money management reported being most likely to fight over spending too much and saving too little. So, what happens when there is less to go around? Experts say you must recession-proof your marriage so the added stressors -- furloughs, foreclosures and other side effects of a bust economy -- don't drive you apart. In fact, if you work at it, they may even bring you closer together.
"Use the economic downturn as an opportunity to really focus on how you can handle these issues better," says Judy Levit, an Oakland, Calif., marriage and family therapist. "Come together and prioritize the important things in your relationship. When the material things that we're all used to are taken away, it causes us to think about what we really want." Listen to each other's needs and wants and remind each other that good relationships, not money, make couples happy, she adds.
A positive byproduct of recessions is that the divorce rate softens, says Philadelphia psychologist B. Janet Hibbs.
"People have an external issue to blame," says Hibbs, author of "Try to See It My Way: Being Fair in Love and Marriage" (Penguin). "They become more of a team and rally, saying, 'We're going to get through this economy.' It's not about a power struggle, it's about reality. They realize that, 'Hey, everybody's in my boat.'"
That said, one of the biggest problems to safeguard against during a recession is the rise of what Hibbs calls financial infidelity, hiding purchases or making a decision with financial consequences without letting your spouse know. According to Hibbs, men tend to hide investments while women tend to hide excess spending. What's more, while 96 percent of spouses agree that they should be honest with each other about money, 30 percent admit that they've lied to their partner about it, she says.
"There is an anxiety permeating our family system," Hibbs says. "Couples must be honest and upfront about money. Deceit doesn't work very well in marriage." So use the recession as an opportunity to have productive, meeting-style conversations about money rather than letting the topic slide into frenetic, daily conversations.
Hibbs suggests writing down your goals and priorities individually, then coming together to compare notes. Arrange them as short-term and long-term goals. For the spouse whose morning lattes are making too big a hole in the short-term budget, suggest labeling envelopes accordingly -- lunch, dry cleaning, mad money -- and filling them with the appropriate amount of cash for the week, Hibbs says. Stay away from credit cards.
If that doesn't work, it is possible that the spouse is using spending to get back at his or her partner, or reduce stress. "Sometimes people spend money because they're not getting their emotional needs met," Hibbs says. "That's not a money issue, that's a relationship issue." In those cases, the spender in question needs to explore the meaning behind the spending by talking about it with his or her spouse, a therapist or friend.
TALK IT THROUGH
"Everybody needs someone outside the marriage to talk to," Hibbs says. "The good news is it's not only you guys who have less money. Everyone does."
So, chances are, the friends you used to join for monthly wine country excursions may be just as interested in meeting up for a potluck as you are.
"Get together with friends and commit to sharing tips and ideas and problems with each other as a support group type of thing," Levit says. "Situations like this always bring people together."
If you are coping with one of the biggest challenges of a recession -- a pay cut or jobless spouse -- remember: Never resort to blaming or criticizing.
"Part of the supportive spouse's job is to keep the anxiety in control, not demoralize the out-of-work spouse," Hibbs says. Your financial goal is only one thing. But your relational goal is to ...
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