Financial Strain, Family Stress

The economy in the US still hasn’t recovered from the blows of 2008. Fortunately, we in Israel weathered that particular storm far better than many other developed countries, but the social protests of last summer and the latest report presented by Bank of Israel chief Stanley Fischer, all point to a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, and an increasing difficulty of the middle class to make ends meet.

A recent article in the New York Times by Tara Siegel Bernard featured a discussion of marital stress in tough economic times, and tips for not letting unemployment or a tight financial situation eat away at a marriage.

Chronic unemployment is putting many couples’ marital vows to the test — particularly the part that refers to “for richer, for poorer.”

With far less money coming in each month, many families have been forced to cut back, borrow money from family and friends and maybe even drain their savings. Millions, too, have lost their homes to foreclosure. And then there is the toll that joblessness is taking on their relationships…

Maggie Baker, a psychologist in the Philadelphia area who focuses on money issues, said the husband in a couple she recently met with had been unemployed for more than a year. And while his wife was initially supportive, she had started to feel the burden of supporting the family on her own.

“She is watching her husband shrivel and feel ashamed and humiliated, yet unable to do anything because he’s lost his motivation,” Dr. Baker said. “When it goes on seemingly forever, that is when people begin to wear. Then it feels like a permanent change, and a permanent change to the negative, and people react very strongly to that.”

Siegel Bernard then goes on to list come coping methods. I’ll list a few of them here; anyone who wants the entire list can go to the full article, linked above.

TAKE CONTROL One way to deal with the trauma or longevity of joblessness is to try to replace your fears with a sense of increased control and confidence, a method practiced by Judy Haselton, a financial planner in New York who has been trained at the Sudden Money Institute, which helps people deal with big changes in their financial situations.

The first step is to simply acknowledge to one another that you’re both under stress. Next, you should both identify your fears and make a list of immediate financial threats, possible threats and what’s unlikely — this will help guide more rational thinking. Then, sort the list by what can be controlled (spending less by using cash only, for instance), what can be managed (perhaps finding a credit card with a lower interest rate if you have an outstanding balance) and what should be monitored (like the amount of money you are bringing in each month).

“The idea is to normalize and name the situation, prioritize the fears and organize them in a way where they have a process to stabilize their financial situation,” Ms. Haselton said.

It’s interesting that one of the ways to take control of financial matters is to meet with a financial planner. However, my experience has shown that people are reluctant to do so, even though a professional could help them. I think that the reason for this reluctance is that dealing with money is an area in which we feel we, as grown-ups, are supposed to be competent. Asking a professional for help is a signal that in some critical part of our grown-ups lives we have failed.

Also, some people who need the help just don’t have the money to pay for the help.

SHARE RESPONSIBILITYThomas Faupl, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Francisco who specializes in the emerging field of financial therapy, suggests that couples create an emergency budget that will help prepare for the longer term, strip down expenses down to the essentials and re-evaluate what’s really important to the family. “Many times, it’s not about the money but the quality of the relationship,” he added. “By revisiting what is most important to them as a couple and a family, that will help them get through the dark days.”

And be sure to go through the exercise together. “Having one person take over the finances disempowers the other and can lead to resentment, blame, communication breakdowns and misplaced assumptions about how bills are getting handled,” Mr. Faupl said, adding that credit counseling agencies can also lend a helping hand. Working jointly will also help you identify areas where you disagree, which may help avoid arguments later.

In Israel there is an excellent non-profit organization called Pa’amonim, which works with people who are in financial trouble to build realistic budgets and financial goals for themselves.

And here’s a good piece of advice in general, for individuals and families going through crises:

DON’T OVERSHARE Talk with your partner about what details you want to remain private and what’s all right to discuss with family or friends. Is it O.K. to mention that your spouse is going on a second interview — or on antidepressants? What about your finances? And how much are you telling your mother? Or father? Finding that public and private line demonstrates a sense of loyalty, Ms. Puhn said. “And then you prevent the fight that would happen after your holiday dinner.”

Another suggestion deals with supporting the spouse struggling with the blow to self-esteem that comes with unemployment.

CHEERLEADING Being out of work for a prolonged period of time can crush one’s self-esteem, which is why working spouses should let their partners know they are valued and loved for who they are. “We live in a culture where work informs our sense of self, our identity, so that is hard for a lot of people who are unemployed,” Mr. Faupl said.

Being forced to change careers or take a lower-paying job can also hurt one’s self image. “A supportive spouse looks at the wife who lost the job and says, ‘I am so proud of you for taking a lower-paying job doing something you don’t really want to do because you care about us and our family,’ “ Ms. Puhn said. “By choosing different words to describe it, you change its meaning. And if we convey that to each other, then your children sense that, too, and there is pride in what you are doing not shame.”

I would add that in addition to the cheerleading recommended, the unemployed spouse find activities to maintain his or her self-esteem. Volunteering, tutoring at a child’s school, nurturing neglected creative talents, are all ways that an individual uncover gifts that are appreciated by the family and society, as well as that ever-important, keeping himself productive and busy.

Finally, make sure you remember that there is more to your lives and your identities than your current crisis.

DATE NIGHTS Try to come up with creative things to do that cost little or no money, Ms. Mellan suggested, so you can get out of the house and talk about things that are not job- or money-related. Maybe you can ask friends to watch your children, in exchange for watching theirs another night. And remember the importance of nonverbal communication — eye contact, hand holding — which can also help couples remain connected, she said. “And those things are free.”

Last but not least, this piece of advice from a divorce lawyer (me): Always remember – unless you are married to a gambler or someone who constantly gets into debt –  divorce is a bigger blow to the wallet than any vagaries of the economy. Doing whatever it takes to weather the storm is probably the best financial step one could take.

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