Five Tips to Recession Proof Your Relationship

How couples can keep the down economy from ruining their relationships.

ByABC News via logo
February 15, 2009, 10:14 AM

February 15, 2009— -- Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and professor of psychology and business at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, offers these five tips to help couples recession-proof their relationships.

Expand Meaning of Wealth

Tip 1: Expand your definition of "wealth" and "security" to include all of your riches -- good health, hobbies, pets, friendships and, most importantly, your spouse and family.

Couples have to realize what's really important to them, thinking about all the riches in their life besides money. If people are conscious of this and show appreciation of the other person in their relationship, and other members of their family, it takes away some of sting of what they have to give up when financial circumstances limit them. We all have the problem of often thinking about losses instead of our riches, or the things that make us feel wealthy besides money. And the bottom line is that relationships are much more enriching than money. Would you ever trade your spouse for a job? Not likely. But that's what couples are doing when they let financial problems ruin a relationship.

Consider New Roles

Tip 2: Flexibility in the face of change is the best defense. Uncover the secret psychological expectations you have about what a "husband" or "wife" should be and consider expanding those concepts to meet new economic realities.

Couples have to address that a recession or financial crisis may force them into new roles. While the husband may have always considered himself to be the breadwinner, when he loses his job, it can be difficult to readjust to a new roles. So you have to be as flexible as possible in considering new roles in the relationship, and the new meaning of being a husband or a spouse in an relationship altered by the recession. That means discussing what expectations you have on what it means to be a husband or wife, and how you expect to care for the family and to be cared for by your spouse. And there may be different ways for you to be a "masculine man" or a "generous wife" than in your previous roles when the economy wasn't effecting your relationship.

Create a Routine

Tip 3: In times of uncertainty, it helps to create as much predictability in you life as you can -- scheduling the good (and the uncomfortable) does just that. Set up weekly budget meetings that include not only talking about finances, but also the best ways to handle anxiety, feelings and your marriage. Also schedule weekly meetings of a more romantic nature to keep the emotional aspects of your relationship strong.

While one spouse may shrink away during tough financial times, and say that they just want the other spouse to back off, one thing you can do to confront that is to create predictability by trying to formalize lines of communication. Say "I want to help you, I want to talk to you" so they know you're available, and try to schedule a regular time to talk, even if for just 15 minutes every Friday. You have to tell them in a compassionate way -- "It would help me so much, since I know you're going through so much, and I would feel so much better if I feel like I can help you." But also make it very task-oriented -- every week have a session to see the state of your finances, but also the state of your emotional health. So it's "How much money do we have? How's the job search going? How do you and I feel?" Lay this idea of meetings out for your spouse, and then take a step back because nagging doesn't help. When the spouse feels ready, they'll come back to you and hopefully open up. On the emotional front, don't misinterpret a decreased libido. When people feel anxious, their libido tends to go. That can cause a chasm in a marriage, and leaves so much room for misinterpretation. A spouse has to know that it's not them, but that stress and anxiety are libido killers. Scheduling time to be together can help keep a relationship from growing apart.

Mind the Gap

Tip 4: Be aware that stress and anxiety deplete emotional resources of every kind -- everyone has a little less resilience right now, and everyone needs a little more support. That gap can be the start of misunderstandings that can mushroom into real conflicts. Don't jump to conclusions, focus more on your spouse and less on yourself.

Couples have to be conscious that there's an emotional gap caused by financial problems, because when anxiety goes up, our emotional resources are often depleted. So the same time that one spouse may need more emotional support, the other spouse may offer less because they're stressed, and they're busy shaming themselves into thinking they should be able to handle everything. But everyone has fewer resources when they are stressed. So you have to find more ways to be flexible without being emotionally reactive. That means talking, without being defensive. If you do, that defensiveness goes away. Instead of feeling sorry for yourself, think how hard it is on your husband or wife. Vulnerability leaves the door open to communication, and that give-and-take becomes circular.

Do the Doable

Tip 5: Focus on what you can do, and avoid panic around what you can't do. Remember, fear is just a warning bell -- worrying does not solve problems, it short-circuits rational thinking. Be mindful and stay in the present. Reach out for help, and also help others -- it's empowering.

Couples have to understand that the economy is beyond their control, and instead get really focused on things you can control. It's the anxiety over things you can't control that causes marital problems. The thing that helps people most is often last on the list -- that's asking other people for help whether its through brainstorming ideas to weather their financial situation, or in the form of compassion or even financial assistance from friends or family. Let down your defense and let other people in. It's often the last thing people think of because want to be stoic and responsible. Men in particular are hit so much harder; for better or worse, because men are taught that a lot of their identity and value is tied up in work. So make up your mind that worrying doesn't help, or makes things work any better. Some people feel like worrying is doing something, and feel like it's wrong to have fun, but it's a mistaken notion that you have to be serious because you're going through serious times. Remember to control what you can control, and let go of what can't. You have to have great empathy for your spouse, and you have to have it for yourself. Marshal all of your resources to support and assist -- our ability to give to each other is a source of salvation. And even if the financial problems are long term, again just step back and say would you trade your spouse for a job?

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