How to Handle Financial Challenges in Relationships

Time and time again we’ve heard that money is the topic couples fight about the most. And it makes sense: From owning a home to raising children to planning for the future, our finances color almost every aspect of our lives.

But it’s not just disagreements about spending and saving that can cause couples grief — sometimes major life changes or other issues arise that can take money problems to new heights. Here are some of the more challenging scenarios that you and your partner might face, and advice to help you come out of them stronger, both financially and personally.

For Richer and Poorer

For Richer and Poorer

Time and time again we've heard that money is the topic couples fight about the most. And it makes sense: From owning a home to raising children to planning for the future, our finances color almost every aspect of our lives.

But it's not just disagreements about spending and saving that can cause couples grief — sometimes major life changes or other issues arise that can take money problems to new heights. Here are some of the more challenging scenarios that you and your partner might face, and advice to help you come out of them stronger, both financially and personally. 

You Discover Your Partner Is Hiding Debt

You Discover Your Partner Is Hiding Debt

The Challenge: While this situation is pretty common, according to matrimonial lawyer Regina A. DeMeo, it can be tough to deal with because it feels like a breach in loyalty. And because of the betrayal, the confrontation can be harsh, causing the partner who’s hiding the debt to ”get defensive, lie, or shut down," she says.

Hiding debt is about more than just money. Aside from the trust issues that are a given in this situation, clinical psychologist Nancy B. Irwin explains that this behavior can also be an indicator of negative self-worth. “If one is in debt and hiding it, there may be some denial, perceived inadequacies, or self-loathing going on," she says.

How to Deal: Start the conversation as nonjudgmentally as possible, DeMeo advises, by asking something like: "I'm not sure how this happened. Can you help me understand how this debt came about, and can we together come up with some possible solutions?" You want to make sure your partner feels supported and encouraged to talk.

Marriage and family therapist Laurel Wiers suggests exploring what kinds of purchases got your partner into debt. By working together to understand why this happened, she says, you two will also learn that sharing a burden, like debt, is better than hiding one.

Irwin suggests setting up a regular review of both of your expenses and financial goals to make it easier to be open about money and managing it together. "Many times this act of hiding debt is learned behavior," she says, so starting a new habit of sharing important information is key to overcoming this problem.

One of You Gets Laid Off

One of You Gets Laid Off

The Challenge: This situation confronts many people’s sense of independence and identity, Wiers says, because “being laid off makes some people feel like they are not 'earning their keep.'" Beyond that, the partner who still has a job can get resentful, she adds, because “he or she now has to bear all of the financial burden."

How to Deal: First you have to deal with finding a new job. Figure out what types of jobs the unemployed partner will apply for and set a realistic goal for when they should aim to be back to work, Weirs says.

You'll also want to reevaluate your day-to-day roles now that one person isn't working, she says. Talk about laundry, cooking, cleaning, and child care, as well as how any other household chores and duties might get redistributed. This will help both of you navigate this new territory without jumping to conclusions about what each person should and shouldn't be doing. And since you’ll have only one income for the foreseeable future, you’ll need to look at your household budget to see where you can cut back to curb any money stress.

One of You Gets Sick — Which Means Unexpected Medical Bills

One of You Gets Sick — Which Means Unexpected Medical Bills

The Challenge: In addition to the emotional impact of a sudden illness or accident, this situation is rough because, no matter your financial situation, your partner’s health and your own need to be your No. 1 priority, says Samantha Daniels, relationship expert and founder of The Dating Lounge. "Regardless of the cost, most couples are going to spend the money," she says. "At the same time, some resentment might develop, combined with the fear and the unfairness related to what is occurring."

How to Deal: Get the facts. Make sure you understand what costs your insurance will and will not cover, and if needed, look into getting help from nonprofits such as Patient Advocate Foundation or applying for a personal loan to cover costs, Daniels says. Once the impending costs are established, it’s important to talk about what items in your budget can be put on the back burner for the time being, she adds.

Wiers says that any underlying insecurities the sick partner has must be addressed. "Sometimes he or she just needs to be reminded, in a very concrete way, that things are okay," she says.

Resentment can happen — it’s only human — and getting support through couples therapy or even individual counseling can be helpful for working out conflicting emotions during this time.

Commitment is redefined by surviving an event such as this, Weirs says, and you may emerge with a stronger relationship. "To learn you are loved while at your worst is powerful,” she says. “To have an opportunity to love selflessly is equally powerful."

One of You Is Cheating, and Spending on the Affair

One of You Is Cheating, and Spending on the Affair

The Challenge: Obviously an affair can destroy a relationship. And when the wayward partner has been running up a tab with someone on the side, that only compounds the issue.

How to Deal: If you decide to stay together, you will likely need to seek out couples counseling to help rebuild the lost trust. Going through this shows you that no union is affair-proof, notes Wiers. "People don’t like to hear this, but it’s true: Nobody sets out to cheat," she says. Whether you move on with the same partner or another one, you should consider protecting yourself legally.

From a financial standpoint, the person who betrayed their partner would have to be willing to make all financial transactions transparent, DeMeo says. "This means the other person would be able to view all income and expenses, including credit card and bank statements, and then the couple would discuss any expenses that are questionable," she says. "Another part of the discussion could be how the person who spent marital funds is going to make this up to the betrayed partner,” either financially or in some other way, if that is important to you.

You Lend Money to a Family Member, But Never Get Paid Back

You Lend Money to a Family Member, But Never Get Paid Back

The Challenge: This situation can expose a rift between how two people act when it comes to money and family, says Syble Solomon, creator of Money Habitudes and an expert on how couples communicate about money. "So much of what underlies couples' conflicts about money comes down to trust; here it may be that you end up losing trust in your partner to make a sound decision, as well as losing trust in that person's family, which can feel really bad for everyone," she says.

Therapist Melody Wilding, LMSW, adds that the person who lent the money may also find himself justifying this behavior to his partner, causing a loyalty struggle — he may feel caught between his family of origin and the family he’s created with his significant other or spouse. "This creates triangulation, a type of toxic relationship pattern that pits you against your partner," she explains.

How to Deal: To fix the trust and loyalty issues, Wilding suggests speaking to the family member in question directly, as a team. "If the money [lent] is jointly shared with your partner, give her the seat at the table she deserves," she says. "This limits further triangulation and helps clear the air of any miscommunication about repayment that may have gone unsaid up to this point."

However, she notes that in some, if not most, cases, moving forward might mean not trying to recover the loan in question and just mentally reframing those funds as a gift. That way, you can both work toward replenishing your savings and let go of any resentment.

Through this, you'll learn the importance of having a clear set of expectations before you decide to lend any money to a family member again. "Write out a repayment plan that has details such as the payment amount, due dates, or when the money will be paid back in full — then have each party sign it," says financial planner Lacey Langford. "This makes everyone take it seriously, and everyone knows the expectations up front."

One of You Develops a Gambling Problem

One of You Develops a Gambling Problem

The Challenge: The “instability of gambling” compounds the issue of trust that develops, Solomon says. "As with other addictions, it's not an easy habit to turn off; just communicating to a partner that this behavior is destructive may not get that person to change." Feeling powerless in this situation can be paralyzing and cause resentment to build in the partner who isn’t gambling.

How to Deal: This is one of those times when seeking outside help through support groups or a therapist is key, Solomon says. Fixing an addiction is not something couples should do on their own if they truly want to overcome this problem.

While one person gets help, the partner without the addition needs to safeguard the finances, and perhaps even create separate accounts if both partners' money is combined. "Be aware of all your bills and take responsibility for paying them or having them paid automatically — this is necessary to avoid late fees, penalties, missed payments, loss of credit, and possible foreclosure or repossession of a vehicle," she explains. If you already have overdue bills, or even ones in collection, you may need professional help from a financial advisor to manage everything, and you may consider legal assistance if you own a home or have accrued other large debts.  

Your partner will need continued support moving forward, which might mean Gamblers Anonymous meetings, counseling, and a shoulder to lean on. You should take measures to protect your own money (unlinking accounts, taking their name off your credit cards) in case your partner backslides, and seek out support for yourself if you feel you could use it.

The Family Business Goes Under

The Family Business Goes Under

The Challenge: When you own your own business, the line between your work and personal lives blurs. "Many of the big eggs in your life are in the same basket, and cracks at work can quickly become cracks at home," Solomon says. If you lose your business, the impact can put a huge strain on your relationship and home life, in addition to your finances.

How to Deal: "It’s essential to determine the realities of your financial situation and how to take serious steps to face them," Solomon says, especially if you’ve put a great deal of your personal resources into the business. A CPA or other trusted financial resource can help you, if needed.

Of course, losing your business will be emotional — and you may have differing feelings about what happened. "For example, one may feel like a failure and the other may think it’s a relief to get out of the business and move on," she says. "There may be some I-told-you-so recriminations. It’s important to have ground rules so the communication isn’t destructive." Agree not to assign blame, and to let each of you process your emotions about the closing. Even if you feel differently about it, you can be a united front of mutual support.

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