DR. HE SAID, DR. SHE SAID: Coping with financial stress on a relationship


We have talked about some of the effects of financial stress on a relationship in the past, but feel it deserves further examination in a full column. Money anxiety can be a formidable adversary to a marriage when its insidious presence triggers a cascade of underlying dynamics that cause mistrust and disrespect between a couple.

We have all been there in one way or another: having too little of it; disagreeing on how to spend it; where more of it can come from; who should make it; even how we can mislead ourselves into thinking that we should or would be happy simply having plenty of it. Because financial problems can deeply threaten our personal needs for safety, when any of the above problems arise, the resultant lack of safety gets thrust onto the relationship and both people get ready to do battle.

The truth is, when there is financial stress happening for a couple, it will most often trigger other lingering problems in the relationship that have yet to be dealt with. For example, quite often money problems are a way for couples to act out their issues around power—and therefore, control—in the relationship. One person earning more income than the other can become an ongoing battleground for who feels entitled to having control over the decision-making process for a marriage. It can also trigger mistrust and anger that one person isn’t “pulling their weight”, so to speak, regarding the needs of the family. Either of these situations quite often produces a domino effect wherein other overlooked power issues between the couple get reactivated and raised to help bolster the case for the one who feels dis-empowered or unfairly burdened with responsibility.

It is also not unusual for either one or both people to regress in the way that he or she deals with this stress. Regression is a defense mechanism we all use when we are faced with a situation that is so anxiety provoking that we cannot deal with it rationally, and so we protect ourselves by retreating to an earlier stage of development or to a more primitive coping skill. Money issues tap into our basic survival needs. What this means is that when our financial stress is high, it almost feels natural for us to get into a fight or flight mode of dealing with the situation with our partner, much as a scared child would act when feeling threatened. Whether this means stamping our feet and screaming or emotionally shutting down, the couple immediately cuts itself off from communicating in a healthy way, which in turn elevates the stress even more.

When you and your partner find yourself under financial stress, we suggest you try one or all of these strategies in order to avoid creating a major crisis for your relationship:

  1. Put off making any major decisions about the relationship until the financial issue feels better managed.
  2. Meet with a financial advisor—an objective third party—who can separate the emotional issues that you and your spouse have attached to the finances and holds them at bay. This always helps to give couples a reality check of themselves and their projections of blame onto each other.
  3. Make a specific time once a week to go over the finances together. Checking in with each other often increases the trust and reduces the feeling of being alone, which in turn helps to reduce the need to go into survival mode.
  4. Each of you needs to take a look at your emotional relationship with money. Are you realistic with your spending? Or do you use money impulsively for the immediate gratification of feeling better about yourself? Do you not feel you deserve to have it? Do you feel entitled to it without working for it? Be honest with yourself so that you can be honest with your spouse about your relationship with money. This will help you both support each other to deal with the emotional needs that money fulfills in a healthier way.

Financial stress cannot help but challenge you as a couple to clarify the power, survival, and safety needs of your relationship. Once you do the work of clarifying what these needs are, you both will have a template from which to build a solid and more trusting relationship.
Hanalei Vierra, Ph.D. (Dr. He) and M’Lissa Trent, Ph.D. (Dr. She) are a married couple who have worked together for over 15 years coaching troubled relationships to clearer communication, deeper intimacy, and healthier partnership. See their web site at www.sandiegotherapists.com/conjoint.html For more information on Relationship Advice for Men, go to www.HowToKeepHer.com on the web, where you will also be able to purchase Dr. He and Dr. She’s new eBook entitled “Making Relationships Work”. Please email any questions to: