Is Your Relationship Suffering from Money Problems?

New research shows how financial strain can strain your relationship.

Posted Nov 28, 2020

Fear of job loss, job insecurity, and other financial-related hardships can threaten a couple’s relationship no matter what else is happening in the world. In the wake of COVID-19's severe economic impact, it's possible that you find yourself arguing with your partner not only over money but also the minor annoyances of daily life.

Perhaps your partner forgot to complete an assigned household chore such as making the bed. You explode in fury, accusing your partner of being neglectful and lazy. In the past, you'd quietly smooth the sheets yourself, maybe just muttering a few choice words under your breath. Now, however, it feel as though your partner's behavior is symptomatic of a much bigger relationship problem.

Even if you haven’t personally seen your wages go down, you may very well be facing other strains on your relationship due to worries about the overall health of the economy and its impact on your savings. You may also have members of your extended family who are in need of the help you can barely afford on your own budget. Making matters worse, your children’s educational needs may mean that you have to invest in home-based technology that requires additional outlays, further adding to your budget woes.

Perhaps all these strains mean that you've become jittery and on edge, that neither of you are sleeping very well, and that you can no longer enjoy some of the little pleasures you used to share. According to Mariana Falconier, of the University of Maryland College Park, and Jeffrey Jackson, of Virginia Tech (2020), such problems are only part of the impact of economic downturns. As they note, previous studies have documented the resulting “deterioration of family relationships” in ways that include “inter-partner hostility and conflict, relationship dissatisfaction and instability, and poor parenting” (p. 311).

Although COVID-19 data weren’t included in the U. Maryland-Virginia Tech study, there were ample studies from the literature to draw from in their analysis of the impact of financial stress on interpersonal functioning in families. Defining economic stress from the perspective of cognitive theories of stress, Falconer and Johnson point out the need to distinguish so-called “objective” dimensions of strain (unemployment, loss of income, amount of debt) from the “subjective” or perceived elements of employment uncertainty and economic strain. This subjective dimension includes the “perceived adequacy of financial resources, financial concerns and worries, and expectations regarding one’s future economic situation” (p. 312). 

The key to understanding economic strain, then, is to recognize that it’s caused by the perception that you lack financial resources, not necessarily what's actually in your checking account. This appraisal-based view then became the basis for the study's conceptual model linking economic hardship to relationship satisfaction and stability. With the acronym FESM, the so-called “family economic stress model” proposes that high levels of economic hardship increase the likelihood of couples experiencing economic strain. That perception of financial hardship then becomes translated into greater frequency of negative interactions, fewer positive interactions, and greater emotional stress among the members of a couple. Ultimately, their satisfaction suffers and the relationship is more likely to end in a breakup.

Using the tools of meta-analysis, in which a large number of studies are combined into one large-scale statistical model, Falconier and Jackson compiled 34 published full-text articles and one master’s thesis that met the criteria for their analysis. The authors quantified positive relationship interactions as involving such behaviors as partners showing caring, empathy, support, validation, and warmth. Couples who interact positively also show high levels of communication and constructive methods of conflict resolution.

Partners who show negative interactions instead engage in frequent arguments and when in conflict, use destructive tactics such as denigrating the partner or giving the partner the cold shoulder. The other relationship measures included satisfaction and dissolution.

With data collected between the years of 1983 and 2016, the authors had considerable evidence to draw from in tracing economic upturns (41%) and downturns (59%). Their samples came from a variety of sources ranging from communities to universities. There were 13,722 couples in the overall sample, with 70% of these couples providing dyadic data (i.e. information from both partners).

Across all samples and historical periods representing the duration of the study, the authors reported strong support for the FESM. In their words, “economic strain seems to have an equally harmful effect on many aspects of couple relationship functioning” (p. 321). In part, this impact was due to the increase in negative interactions of arguing and stonewalling, but also to the decrease in positive relationship behaviors of showing affection and support.

Although the impact of strain occurred for all couples it was, as you can imagine, stronger for couples whose income was objectively at the low end of the scale. Furthermore, given that the samples were drawn from international studies, the authors were able to compare U.S.-based analyses with those based on countries such as Argentina, Canada, South Korea, and Turkey. As it turned out, the impact of economic strain on couple relationship quality proved to be stronger in Americans, suggesting that social supports in areas such as health care and education could buffer the impact on a couple of their own financial insecurity.

The FESM- based findings suggest that to overcome the strain on their relationship caused by financial hardship, couples first of all recognize just how severely their relationship can be impacted by a tough economic climate. You may not realize that the reason you let your partner's failure to make the bed get so out of control is you're so preoccupied with your money problems.

Turning to matters specifically involving your budget, you may feel that your partner is being frivolous by getting some new gadget around the home or perhaps a new streaming service. As much as you might fume about this inwardly, it can be helpful to recognize the value of communicating this concern to your partner in a constructive, non-accusatory fashion. You can also encourage your partner to share his or her concerns about your financial decision-making in an open and accepting manner.

A challenge such as financial hardship obviously can present a wide range of threats to your ability to cope. The fact that you are sharing this challenge with your partner could, according to the FESM, allow you to use this threat as a challenge. Returning to the idea that strain results from perception as much as reality, if you’re able to make this translation, it may just be possible for you and your partner’s relationship to survive despite the hard times in which you are living.

To sum up, financial insecurity in general can cause relationship quality to suffer as couples resort to negative communication patterns. With the insecurity caused by the pandemic, couples may be faced with the most severe threats they've ever encountered. Turning the threat into a challenge can become the first step toward ensuring your relationship lives on past these current times and into greater fulfillment, no matter what the economic hard times you and your partner may face.

References

Falconier, M. K., & Jackson, J. B. (2020). Economic strain and couple relationship functioning: A meta-analysis. International Journal of Stress Management, 27(4), 311–325. doi: 10.1037/str0000157.supp (Supplemental)