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Tips for Couples During Difficult Economic Times

by Richard Drobnick, LCSW, DCSW
These are hard economic times for all of us. If we have been hard hit by the economic recession through the loss of our job, concerned or depressed by the loss of our savings for retirement or in real estate, or worried about the future, we are stressed. To make matters worse and more anxiety-ridden, no one seems to really understand what is going on economically. Even in good times, our career-orientated society has produced unprecedented levels of stress. As a professional couples counselor, I know that these times have created marital difficulties not seen for some time. I’ll provide a few vignettes of couples I’m working with, and I hope to offer some general help to people suffering a multitude of possible life challenges.

With one couple, the man, once a successful stock trader, is now barely making ends meet. He had promised his wife that she would not have to work after marriage. That promise is now not possible. She feels cheated of her dreams. She feels he let her down and failed. He feels he’s doing his best and she’s treating him critically and unfairly.

Another man just lost his job. He unfairly criticizes himself. His wife, also working hectic day and night hours on her job, never pictured life would be like this in their late 40s. Children are soon to enter college. Now what?

A woman in her mid-50s was a very successful manager in the financial industry before she lost her job. Although scary, it offers her an opportunity to have more quality time to reconnect to her husband and children. But what will happen to their financial future, children’s college expenses, and retirement?

A young couple with a young child just closed on their first house. Now comes the stress of higher costs for the mortgage and taxes. The husband, fortunately in a job with ample overtime, can’t refuse it when available, but he is working excessive hours per week. How can he refuse any overtime now? But there is little quality time with his wife and child. Tightening their budget means no Dunkin Donuts coffee, brown bagging lunch, cutting back on snacks. Eliminating these usual simple joys cause stress. So why work 70 hours per week? But what happens if overtime work is eliminated?

Some marriages remain strong when these difficult economic times hit, but some couples have been experiencing difficulties even during strong economic times. Money can be the straw that breaks the back of an already rocky relationship. With countless variations of difficult life circumstances during these painful economic times, what are we to do?

If the husband has lost his job, he must keep his wife updated on what he has done to find a new job. Men tend to think, “I’ve already done all I can do today, so why talk about it?” Men forget about their problems as a way to reduce stress. Sort of like a mini-vacation to forget about their problems. When men talk about their problems, it brings back the anxiety and the innate impulse men have to fix problems. Women can misinterpret this normal way for a man to reduce stress anxiety to mean he didn’t try hard enough today, or he just doesn’t care to share his feelings. This same theme can be applied to the man whose income was reduced, who is in fear of losing his job, or whose bonus was reduced or eliminated. He may be doing all he can do but just not talking about it. So a man must remember to update his wife on the situation, and a woman must remember his need to then let it go. Her continued talking or questioning will make a man feel defensive, because he will misinterpret her questioning to mean she doesn’t trust his best efforts.

On the other hand, a woman who has lost her job, who is in fear of losing her job, or whose income or bonus was reduced will want to talk about it. When a woman talks about problems, and her husband is truly listening, her stress is reduced. And she may need to talk about it a lot, with every small detail thrown in for good measure. A man must not feel that he must now fix her problem and give unsolicited advice or suggestions. This is not what she wants, and it will only increase his stress by his feeling that he has more problems to solve.

So, men, just sincerely listen, breathe deep, be interested, even inquisitive, and she will feel better without your having to do anything. A woman can help a man by reminding him he need only listen. If you want suggestions, make it clear in what area you want help. When offered, appreciate his input.

Men sort of have their mental caves – or alone time -- with a sign stating, “Please do not disturb”. Men like to retreat into their own minds where they feel they can be in control and try to figure things out. Women also have caves, but their sign reads, “I need to talk.” When a man, trying to help, asks a woman, “What’s wrong?” and she says, “Nothing”, it really means, “Nothing, unless you care to listen and give me an opportunity to talk.”

During bad or good economic times, it is good communication that keeps a couple close. Couples now need to have a dialogue about budgets in general and for the holiday season. Each partner should share their perspectives about how much should be spent, on whom, on what, and why they feel that way. The other partner need remain silent, repeat what was said back to their partner, and acknowledge the validity of what they said. Then the other partner expresses their complete point of view, with the other partner now repeating back what was said, and acknowledging the validity of their point of view. Remember, there are always two valid points of view on all marital decisions. When we really hear each other, we can further discuss areas where we can or can’t compromise, again validating each other. Eventually a couple can come to a suitable understanding with mutual respect for each other’s feelings.

Refrain from the blame game. Create a plan with good communication. Remember, discussing this current economic stress situation is similar to discussing other matters of a relationship. Develop a budget. Be a team. Create a positive attitude toward change.

Also, the most important things in life really aren’t about money. We need to understand our differences as men and women and learn to better meet each other’s emotional needs. So, men, listen up. Show your wife you care by doing little things. Tell her how lucky you are you married her, tell her how good she looks, write a love note, telephone her often to tell her your thinking about her, bring home the milk and bread, stop and get her favorite snack, give her a hug, bring home some flowers, cut the stems and put them in the vase for her. Give her continued caring, understanding, respect, and devotion. Remember, it’s expression of the little things that will warm her heart -- and other parts. And all of this is for free during these most difficult of economic times. Also, remember just to listen to all she has to say. As I said, expression and being listened to reduces a woman’s stress. This connection increases her oxytocin, a woman’s feel-good hormone that reduces stress.

And, women, listen up. Tell your man the things you appreciate about him. Let him know he makes you happy. If he feels appreciated, he’ll want to do more for you. Assert yourself and tell him what you need. When he delivers, tell him you appreciate what he did. He’ll feel he came up with the idea on his own. Tell him you can count on him. This encouragement will bring out the best in him. Do your best to accept his imperfections. Refrain from trying to change him too much.

Remember, give him his cave time. By watching sports, playing video games, reading the newspaper, etc., he can forget about his problems. Like a mini-vacation, this time increases his testosterone. This restores his feelings of well-being. It’s best to be the honey outside the cave, not vinegar. Then, a man will come out being more available, caring, and loving to his woman.

Both partners need to think, feel, and share what they have to be grateful for in their partner. And all of this is free.

If your marriage is stressed, and you both find it difficult to communicate and get connected, invest in professional counseling. Unlike the current stock market, counseling will offer you handsome profits with dividends.