Is the economy ruining your marriage?

You know the part of the classic wedding ceremony in which couples vow to stick together “for richer, for poorer”? Well, a lot of spouses lately are really putting the latter part of that promise to the test.

Blame the economy for shaking up once-solid unions. Marital roles are shifting as onetime breadwinners adjust to long bouts of unemployment. Husbands and wives are blaming each other for bad investments and onerous debt. Spouses who once smoothed over spats with a little shopping therapy can no longer afford to fill that prescription. “It’s the biggest stress on married couples in the past 60 years,” says Margaret Shapiro, a clinical social worker in Philadelphia.

How are you and your spouse coping with the challenges you’re facing? And what can you do to ensure you pull together to solve those problems instead of being torn apart by them? The following quiz provides insights into the specific ways the economy may be affecting your marriage, plus the steps you can take to strengthen your relationship — and your finances.

Question 1: Your company reduced salaries 10% this year, and you’re looking hard for ways to cut your family’s expenses. But your spouse insists that you’re exaggerating the financial difficulties and resists attempts to ratchet back your lifestyle. Every conversation about money is turning into a battle. What is most likely to result in a lasting solution to the tension?

A. Let your spouse pick one splurge each month and enjoy it.

B. Together, take a look at the numbers in your investment and checking accounts.

C. Split up your finances so you don’t have to discuss every purchase.

Answer : B. While some couples might benefit from dividing their money or looking the other way when one makes an occasional indulgent purchase, one of the biggest breeding grounds for arguments is simply that most spouses appear to be operating under different sets of “facts” about the resources they have to work with.

According to a study by Jay Zagorsky at Ohio State University’s Center for Human Resource Research, the typical husband reports that the couple earn 5% more and have a net worth 10% higher than his wife thinks they do. And men believe household debt is lower than their wives do.

Moreover, the gap between what husbands and wives say their household earns, saves, and owes gets bigger the longer they are married. (The study didn’t reveal which spouse is usually closer to the mark.)

Rather than fight about whether you can afford to take a ski vacation this winter or whether it’s necessary to ditch your premium cable-TV channels, get the facts you need to make an informed decision. Block out time to sit down together and sort out the basics.

At a minimum you both need to know — and agree on the numbers for — your income (look at last year’s tax return and this year’s most recent pay stubs), your assets (check your account balances online and get a rough estimate of your home’s market value at zillow.com), and your liabilities (add up your most recent loan and credit card statements to see how much you owe overall and do a back-of-the-envelope total of your monthly expenses). That way you’ll know for sure whether you need to cut back and what extras you can swing.

If the exercise reveals you can’t afford the slopes in Vail, find a compromise. Ask your spouse why the trip matters so much: family tradition of a big trip? Relaxation? Love of snow? Then see if you can find a cheaper way to fulfill that goal.

Question 2: It’s been a tough year. The value of your home and your portfolio are way down (even after the recent surge in stock prices), and the payments on the big home-equity loan you took to buy that new motorboat are starting to feel out of reach. Which of the financial issues you face is putting the greatest strain on your marriage?

A. Your plummeting portfolio.

B. Your eroding home equity.

C. Those oversize loan payments.

D. Trick question. They’re all stressful — duh! There’s no way to rank this kind of financial pain.

Answer: C. Sure, a sharp decline in the value of your most important assets can easily put a damper on your relationship — it’s depressing, after all, to watch your savings shrink, and depression doesn’t exactly put you in the mood for love.

But studies by Utah State University professor Jeff Dew show that so-called bad debt, such as balances on credit cards or installment loans, has a much more direct effect on marital happiness than issues with assets, and the impact is largely negative: The more bad debt a couple have, the more likely they are to argue and the less likely they are to be satisfied with their marriage.

By contrast, “good debt” — such as student loans or mortgage payments — doesn’t seem to affect how they feel about each other. And while having more savings and investments can certainly help alleviate feelings of economic pressure, it doesn’t stop the fighting.

So if you’re looking to improve the state of your union, the course is clear: Pare down on the amount you owe.

Feel free to reward yourself along the way — say, a small dinner out to compensate yourself for all the ones you’ve skipped. Or be silly — put stars on the refrigerator, just like you got for your third-grade homework.

“It marks and commemorates that you did it together,” says Lili Vasileff, president of the Association of Divorce Financial Planners. That way you can enjoy a pat on the back while you whittle down your debt — for a double dose of marital contentment.

Question 3. Your spouse was laid off a few months ago. You’ve cut out the housekeeper and family vacations, but your emergency fund is still dwindling, and your partner has no job prospects in sight. In the scenarios below, who suffers the least?

A. Your spouse, the laid-off husband

B. Your spouse, the laid-off wife

C. You, the husband of the laid-off wife

D. You, the wife of the laid-off husband

Answer : C. Losing your job is tough for both men and women, especially if the man strongly identifies with the traditional role of provider. But the effect of your spouse losing his or her job is different for the sexes.

Various studies indicate that women are likely to feel depressed when their husbands are laid off — an increasingly common occurrence nowadays, with male unemployment rising faster than women’s. Yet husbands don’t seem to take it so hard when their wives lose their jobs.

Any negative feelings can easily aggravate the strain couples are already experiencing owing to loss of income, says Scott Stanley, co-author of the book “Fighting for Your Marriage.” The laid-off partner may feel too low to put all his or her energy into looking for work, especially given how discouraging the job market is — or even to prepare a meal or pick up the dry cleaning (chores that also serve as a reminder of the stay-at-home spouse role).

The employed partner, meanwhile, may become frustrated by the spouse’s lack of get-up-and-go on the job and the home fronts. Both partners may find themselves more critical of their spouse than before, which in turn makes them unhappier with their relationship.

If this describes your household, it’s time to alter the pattern. The best way to avoid arguments about changing family responsibilities is to set a few ground rules about how much housework the unemployed spouse should be doing and how much time he or she should spend looking for a job. Then focus on upholding your end of the bargain, not micromanaging your partner’s.

“It doesn’t matter how you arrange things, but that you both agree to it,” says therapist Shapiro.

Question 4. You and your spouse were counting on retiring in 2011. But the 30% decline in your portfolio last year is forcing you to rethink. Now you’re constantly bickering about when you’ll be able to stop working and what kind of lifestyle you’ll have once you do. What’s the most important step you can take now to improve the odds you’ll eventually have a happy retirement?

A. Aggressively pump up the amount you’re saving in your 401(k) and IRA.

B. Start practicing the kind of lifestyle you’d like to have once you retire.

C. Bite the bullet and plan on working for five more years, possibly longer.

Answer: B. Money does have an effect on how happy you will be as a couple in your later years, according to a 2005 study in the International Journal of Aging and Human Development. But the size of your nest egg is not nearly as critical as the quality of the time you spend together.

Studying more than 100 upper-middle-class couples (average age: 69; average length of marriage: 42 years), the researchers found that disagreements about leisure activities were the biggest downer, cited by nearly 40% of couples in unhappy marriages.

Intimacy problems — both emotional and physical — were a distant second, and finances came in fifth, behind health and household issues like home repairs.

So by all means, be aggressive about saving and work a little longer if you can. But you and your spouse also need to lay the groundwork for hanging out together for longer periods and having fun together.

The next time you both have a few days off, make it a staycation. Visit a museum. Find a sport or activity that the two of you can learn together. Playing at retirement should help reduce the friction now and contribute to greater happiness later on.

Question 5. You can’t help it: You think the financial pickle your family is in now is your husband’s fault. After all, he insisted that you buy a too-expensive house, which drove up your expenses by a third. He, on the other hand, says it’s your fault for poorly managing your IRA s, which lost almost half their value last year. Which of you is to blame?

A. You. You should never have loaded your IRAs with risky stocks.

B. Your husband. Digging out from a financial hole is tougher than waiting for the market to bounce back.

C. Both of you are equally to blame.

D. Neither of you should feel that it’s your fault.

Answer : C or D. Ultimately it doesn’t matter who was responsible for your financial predicament; what’s important is that you don’t get hung up on finger-pointing.

Stressful situations often lead couples to lay blame, says Barbara Mitchell, a clinical social worker in New York City who specializes in money issues. “There’s a tendency to scapegoat one another, which starts a real downward spiral,” she says. Researchers have consistently found that the more “negative interactions” you and your partner have — and laying blame for the family’s financial woes certainly qualifies — the worse your relationship will be and the more likely you’ll start thinking about divorce.

Instead of criticizing each other, fault the true culprit, the economy, and form a united front against it.

Schedule regular weekly meetings in which you and your spouse discuss financial problems and possible solutions calmly. That sort of quarantine will prevent your financial gripes from infecting the rest of your day-to-day interactions. Defuse the emotion by focusing on the task. Instead of arguing about who wanted the McMansion more, look into refinancing to lower your costs or trading down to a smaller house.

Question 6. All you and your spouse seem to do these days is fight about money. Even though you hate to admit it, your marriage has reached the breaking point. Given how tough the economic crisis has been on relationships, you have plenty of company, right?

A. No, the evidence suggests that fewer people are getting divorced.

B. Yes, the divorce rate typically spikes during a recession, and this one is proving no different.

C. No, there’s been no change in the divorce rate, which historically has not been affected by the economy.

Answer: A. First things first: It’s a myth that money problems are the leading cause of divorce — infidelity is far and away the biggest predictor. In fact, although official stats aren’t in yet, there’s mounting evidence that the recession is keeping couples together, not breaking them apart.

In a survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 37% of the divorce attorneys polled reported that they see a drop in cases during recessions, nearly twice as many who said their business grows.

However, the dropoff in divorce doesn’t indicate that marriages are any happier these days, but rather that many would-be exes believe they can’t afford to split up (think about the hit you’d take selling your house in this market or how costly it would be to maintain separate households). The number of these too-poor-to-divorce cases has increased in the past year, say 63% of the financial pros recently surveyed by the Institute for Divorce Financial Analysts.

If, after trying to work through your problems with your spouse, you’re both truly convinced you should call it quits, at least try to split up economically. Hiring lawyers to hash out a settlement can be expensive: Boston attorney David Hoffman, studying nearly 200 divorce cases at his firm over a four-year period, found that the median cost per couple was about $54,000.

Alternatively, look into mediation ($16,000), in which a neutral expert helps a couple work out their own agreement. Or consider what’s known as a collaborative divorce ($39,000), in which each spouse has a lawyer but both sides pledge to negotiate respectfully and share information about assets.

Find pros who can help at collaborativepractice.com or mediate.com. No matter how bitter you are, work hard to avoid a contentious split (typical cost of a courtroom divorce battle in Hoffman’s study: $155,000). After all, while true love is priceless, divorce can get really expensive.

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