Lost homes, lost jobs, lost job prospects, lost savings, lost investments ... these are some of the many casualties of the downturn in the national and international economies. People who never imagined that they would or even could be in danger of being homeless or unable to find employment have been experiencing panic and insecurity that they had had previously believed themselves to be invulnerable to. When the "security" that we had thought would protect us in the event of an emergency proves to be illusory, it can seem as though the very ground on which we are standing has dropped out from under us and we are falling into a deep abyss with no way of knowing when we will hit bottom and no confidence that we will survive the crash when we do.
This is the stuff of nightmares, yet for literally millions of Americans, and hundreds of millions of people throughout the world, this scenario has become a reality, a nightmare from which there is no waking up. And yet, what may be the greatest loss of all, the one that has the greatest influence on all the other losses is one that is rarely discussed or even mentioned in the media, has to do with something that is taking the biggest hit of all: the harm to relationships, particularly long-term committed partnerships, like marriage. The failure to adequately acknowledge the degree to which persistent and severe financial adversity can damage even the strongest of marriages can lead us to underestimate the degree of stress and anxiety that that we are subject to in times of unpredictability and economic instability. Such misjudgments make it difficult to make accurate assessments of the specific challenges that we are facing and to mobilize our inner resources to meet them effectively.
One of the greatest challenges of our times has to do with the need to strengthen the nature of our bonds with friends and family by deepening our connections with each other and providing greater reciprocal support, support that isn't necessarily financial or material, but is emotional or spiritual in nature. "Spiritual" in the sense that we can and do offer a sense of connection and mutuality that uplifts us, raises our spirits and reminds us that we are not alone, that we are loved, that we have made it through other crises and that we will make it through this one. Such support can also remind us that it is possible to not only survive hard times, but to come through them with greater resilience and clarity regarding our true values, and awareness of what really matters most to us in life.
I don't mean to diminish the very real challenges that so many of us are facing or to paint everything over with a Pollyanna brush, but rather to recognize both the dangers as well as the opportunities that are inherent in our situation. Number 89 in our first book, 101 Things I Wish I Knew When I Got Married, reads: "When two hearts are connected, the biggest problems become workable; when they are not, the smallest difficulties seem insurmountable". Losing what you thought was your financial security blanket is not a small difficulty. Such an experience can shake up even the strongest of marriages. But when there is a solid and unshakeable ground upon which both partners stand, no challenge is insurmountable. This is not to say that life is always a walk in the park, but rather that the feeling of being connected to someone with whom there is a shared sense of purpose, responsibility, trust, and support can provide a sense of security far greater than anything that money can buy.
Our second book, Secrets of Great Marriages features several couples who experienced financial losses far greater than anything most people go through in their lifetimes. One couple along with their children literally became homeless, losing their home and nearly all of their possessions. Another couple's multi-million dollar business went bankrupt and they not only lost millions, but experienced terrible guilt and sorrow for all of the employees who no longer had a paycheck to count on to provide for the needs of their families.
Both of these couples came through their ordeals with their marriages and health intact, and told us that they were actually grateful for the ordeal that they went through because it helped them to put into perspective the things that really matter to them in life and helped them to become less identified with and attached to their material possessions. As one person told us, "There's nothing like losing nearly everything that you own to show you what you really need and what really matters."
Linda and I went through our own version of a financial meltdown the year after I left my job in 1988. Although I was certain about my need for a career change, it would have been nice if I had waited until I had another career to go to, but life doesn't always work out nicely. What enabled us to not only get through an incredibly trying time in which we literally didn't know where our income was going to come from (or whether it would come at all) was the cushion (not the financial one; that was gone) of our relationship. Although neither of us knew exactly what it was going to look like or what it would take to create a new financial structure for our family's life, what we did know was that we were in this together for the long haul, and that we could count on each other to somehow make things work out. The rest is, as they say, history.
Had it not been for the emotional nest egg that we had built together over the years, and the trust in each other's commitment to our shared vision, it would have been our marriage that was history. As it was, the loss of the old structure proved to be in the long run, a true blessing in that it enabled (or forced) us to create a new structure for our lives, one that we ourselves designed, for our unique needs rather than one that was prefabricated that we had to fit ourselves into.
This is not to romanticize the losses that life sometimes, despite our best efforts, hands us, but rather to remind ourselves and each other that sometimes the very things that we fear and dread can, when they occur, contain the seeds of something far greater than what we had been holding onto.
The crucial variable that determines whether we drown in a sea of despair or survive and even thrive in our new reality is the degree to which we've done our work prior to the time that things get tough. The time to strengthen our connection by building deeper trust, respect, love and integrity into our most cherished relationships is not when the crisis hits, but before. If you wait until you're really in need to draw on your emotional savings account, you'll probably find that it's pretty empty, if like many couples, you've been neglecting it in favor of other "investments".
There truly is no better place to invest your precious resources and energies than your relationships, particularly with those people who matter the most to you. There is no place where the return is greater, and the time to start is NOW. And the question is... (You know what I'm going to ask...) What are you waiting for?