Sure, marriage is about supporting each other, for better or worse. But most couples get married with the expectation that the worst days will be few and far between.
If you or your spouse brought debt into the marriage, however, it can serve as a dark cloud hanging over the relationship. And the problem is only compounded if you aren’t on the same page about how to tackle it.
According to 2019 research commissioned by MassMutual, more than half of married Americans didn’t discuss finances with their partners until after they got hitched. That can certainly lead to surprises when money finally does come up and you find out that your partner has a much different attitude about it than you do.
That was the case for Miranda Marquit, a financial journalist who got married just before she graduated college. She had some credit card and student loan debt, while her husband, who still had a couple of years left to finish his undergraduate studies (and who went on to obtain a Ph.D.) accumulated student loans once they were married. Add a baby, three cross-country moves and a mortgage, and the couple was facing quite a bit of debt.
“We didn’t have a whole lot of talk about finances,” Marquit said. “We just opened a bank account together ― neither of us really had money, anyway ― and we put what meager amounts we had into the bank account.”
Marquit was the only one consistently earning an income at the time, so she handled the bills, including debt payments.
The couple knew the basic goals they wanted to accomplish, such as saving for retirement and vacations. But when it came to sitting down to talk about how they’d reach those goals and devise a budget, Marquit wasn’t met with much enthusiasm. “He just wasn’t very interested in the money stuff,” she said. So she diligently stuck with her role as the family breadwinner and money manager, while her husband remained hands-off.
Jordanne Wells, an IT professional who founded Wise Money Women, was in a similar situation. Before she and her husband got married, they decided they should pay off their debts first and start life as newlyweds with a clean slate. However, after five years of dating, they were no closer to being debt-free. She described herself as debt-averse, but her husband saw debt as a fact of life that shouldn’t hold them back. They compromised and got married despite their lingering debt.
Unfortunately, once married, Wells couldn’t persuade her husband to tackle his debt even as she aggressively paid down her own. At least, not at first. And that left her feeling frustrated and resentful. According to the MassMutual survey, more than two-thirds (68%) of respondents said that if their partner had debt, they would help them financially, but 1 in 10 admitted it would drive them crazy. Three quarters would compromise their financial goals to appease their significant other.
Marquit said she never felt resentful toward her husband for placing the brunt of the household’s financial responsibilities on her shoulders, since she preferred being in control and knowing the details. Plus, she appreciated that he trusted her so much. However, she did admit that financial issues led to some tension in the relationship.
Wells said that early in her marriage, she and her husband argued about money often. “I tried every possible way to get him on board, and all the ways that I tried did not work. It was awful,” she said. Plus, she didn’t have anyone to talk to about the situation.
Why Debt In A Marriage Matters
You might like to believe that your love for your spouse will transcend any financial issues. The truth is that no matter how much two people love each other, debt can become a source of strife and potentially cause a rift in the relationship.
“One or both partners become discouraged and stop dreaming together about plans for the future because they feel hopeless that those dreams can ever become reality.”
“Financial issues, like living paycheck-to-paycheck and struggling to pay off debt, takes an emotional toll,” said Nicole Lacovoni, a financial therapist and licensed couple’s therapist.
Debt-induced stress can lead to depression, anxiety, sleep problems and irritability, which are hard enough to manage on your own. As part of a couple, that stress can lead to taking out frustrations on each other by picking fights, calling names or blaming each other for the situation, she said. This can cause couples to withdraw from each other and lose motivation to spend quality time together, creating disconnect in the relationship.
Couples who struggle to pay off debt can also feel financially stuck, like they’ll never get ahead.
“High debt keeps couples from doing and having the things in life they want, like going on family vacations, building a fully funded retirement account, buying a new car or putting their kids through college,” Lacovoni said. “In turn, one or both partners become discouraged and stop dreaming together about plans for the future because they feel hopeless that those dreams can ever become reality. That takes much of the fun out of the relationship.”
Wells said she realized this just before her and her husbands’ 30th birthdays, which are six days apart. She found the perfect gift to give her husband, but when she sat down to make the purchase, she couldn’t do it. She kept thinking about all the credit card and student loan debt they already had. “And then I thought about it some more, and I was like, I feel like this has always been our life,” Wells said.
The couple hadn’t been on a vacation together. In fact, they never went on their honeymoon because there was no cash left over after the wedding. They were making decent money and could pay the bills, but Wells could see that the debt was still negatively impacting their lives. Not to mention she was making sacrifices like brown-bagging her lunch every day, while her husband continued to spend freely. It was a lonely experience. But things did change.
How Couples With Debt Can Best Support Each Other
You can’t force someone to become great at managing money, but hiding resentment or compromising your own finances aren’t solutions. So what can you do to when you and your partner don’t see eye-to-eye on debt issues?
Get involved: After 10 years of marriage, Marquit and her husband decided to divorce. And that process, in particular, highlighted how distant he had been from the family finances. “I cleared all the credit cards so that everybody had a zero balance, and then gave him all the passwords so that he can get into his own credit accounts … and then set up a bank account for him,” she said.
Looking back, Marquit would change one key aspect of their financial relationship. “I just think a little bit of communication would have been nice,” she said. “In general, just being interested and involved is very important.”
Whether you’re the finance whiz of the relationship or the more laid back type, it’s crucial to be involved in the family finances in some way ― even if that’s simply talking about them. Disagreements are much easier to resolve when you both feel like you’re part of a team.
Communicate empathetically: Money is often a heated issue that’s hard for couples to talk about. It’s important for couples to communicate with empathy about money problems to avoid creating even more negative feelings about debt ― and each other.
The turning point for Wells and her husband was when she realized she needed to change her communication style. “I was approaching this situation badly because I was thinking, ‘How can you not see that we have a problem?’” she said. “But when you approach somebody telling them how wrong they are about how they lead their lives ― it’s not wrong, you just see things differently than I do.”
“Couples who budget together, stay together”
Lacovoni recommends using “I” statements when talking about your debt, such as “I feel [this way] because of [this issue],” rather than explaining what you think the other person is doing wrong. “Structuring sentences like this allows each partner to be accountable for their own feelings without blaming them on their partner,” she said. “It reduces defensiveness and creates a safe space to discuss how to deal with debt.”
Schedule money meetings: It might seem strange, but putting time on your calendars to talk money can be beneficial. Money meetings are a set time to discuss financial issues in a calm way and to brainstorm possible solutions.
“It’s an opportunity for couples to sort through complicated feelings related to debt, understand the current financial situation better and take a hard look at what needs to change to reach debt pay off goals,” Lacovoni said. Try setting aside one hour a week to review your spending and make plans for the next week.
Work on a budget together: Couples who budget together, stay together, according to Lacovoni. Working together on a budget helps couples get clear on their financial values and priorities. When one or both of you are struggling to pay off debt, working together as a team gives you greater financial power.
“A budget provides a concrete plan that both partners can stick to and can reveal when one or both partners veer off track from the financial plan,” Lacovoni said. “This is a useful tool to help hold each other accountable without blaming or judging each other.”