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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. And then there is the toll that joblessness is taking on their relationships.
Even Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, expressed concern in March for the ranks of the long-term unemployed, or those out of work for six months or more. Not only do their bank accounts suffer, he noted, but so do their future earnings potential, their health and the prospects for their children. So it's not surprising that several marital therapists report that more couples are filing into their offices -- when they can afford to -- to try to work through their problems.
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," 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."
In situations like these, certain patterns often emerge. The unemployed partner begins to feel discouraged and withdraws, no longer sharing what he or she is doing to find work. And, eventually, that makes the working partner feel as if the spouse isn't doing enough. Communication breaks down, and resentments build -- at the very moment they need to hold each other up.
"When anybody is tired or under stress, they will always revert to their oldest primitive survival mode, which is usually dysfunctional," said Olivia Mellan, a money coach, author and therapist. Even couples with similar philosophies about money, she said, will find something to disagree about in this situation.
While money has been a perennial source of marital spats, there are several strategies and exercises that can help people cope through tougher times, both financially and emotionally. Several are highlighted below.
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 only cash, for instance), what can be managed (perhaps finding a credit card with a lower interest rate) and what should be monitored (like the amount of money you are bringing in each month).
Thomas Faupl, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Francisco, suggests that couples create an emergency budget that will help prepare for the longer term, strip down expenses to the essentials and reevaluate 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."
Set communication routines
When resentments fester, even greeting your spouse can become a chore. But establishing a communication routine can help you remain connected, even if you aren't feeling particularly amorous. That means saying good morning and good night, greeting each other when you enter and leave the house, and sharing a compliment a day.
You're probably going to argue, so you might as well make it a productive exercise. Most fights that couples have are recycled, said Laurie Puhn, a couples mediator and author, because they never reached a solution during the first go-round. So try to resolve the issue. Don't speak in the abstract ("The job interview didn't go well.") but instead focus on specifics ("I don't feel that I made a strong impression."). The fight should end with a something to do, or a preventive plan for the future. "A good fight carefully walks away from the past and looks at what you should do the next time," Puhn said.
Try to come up with creative things to do that cost little or no money, 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."