Economy taking a toll on marriages

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The sagging economy is taking a toll on marital harmony, counselors say.

"We're seeing the beginning of a wave of problems, emotional and relational, but I don't think we're at the crest of the wave just yet," says Julie Lingler, a clinical social worker in Blue Ash, Ohio.

The strain on marriages is evident among people at all income levels, and in couples where one or both spouses earn a paycheck, counselors say.

The trend dovetails with a Loveawake dating service survey, released in October, in which eight of 10 Americans said the economy is a significant cause of stress, up from 66% in April.

Many couples seeking counseling don't initially associate their problems with the economy, says Chris Tuell, a licensed professional clinical counselor in Cincinnati.

Rather, couples complain about anxiety, depression and increased anger, "then you look at some of the stresses," Tuell says, "and one of the first ones they mention is the economic issue."

Money issues often drive a wedge between couples, even in good times. A recession makes things worse, says Tuell, who counsels people with a wide range of incomes.

Historically, a man's core identity comes from being a good provider for his wife and family, says Karen Gail Lewis, a marriage and family therapist in Cincinnati. When a husband's role as provider is at risk, "it really grabs at his sense of who he is as a man, and that can cause all kinds of horrible problems in a marriage."

Many husbands are concerned about financial security, but they are conditioned not to show it, Lewis says. "What most men have told me is, 'I don't want to worry (my wife),' " she says. "But what most women say is, 'It affects me, too, so I want to know.' "

Lingler says she began seeing more couples with financial security concerns about nine months ago. The National Bureau of Economic Research says the U.S. has been in a recession since December 2007.

Now, against a backdrop of increasing job losses, threats of layoffs and dwindling retirement funds, breakdowns in communication are more common among couples, counselors say.

That leads couples to "either withdraw from one another or attack one another about things that don't have anything to do with financial security," Lingler says. "So there's more discord."

And there are more extramarital affairs, she says, which is how some spouses seek escape during tough economic times.

"When things are difficult and stressful at home and you're feeling bad about yourself as a provider ... it's easier to be attracted to someone else and be vulnerable to someone's charms. You're not going to talk to your affair partner about how you're going to pay the bills, you're going to talk about all the wonderful stuff that's going on between the two of you."

In other cases, financial anxiety leads spouses to alcohol or substance abuse, or they turn to gambling or pornography, Lingler says.

Yet, many couples are motivated to make their marriages work, says Deborah Eckert, a clinical social worker in Cincinnati. One reason: "People are realizing that it's more expensive to break up a family than it is to stay together."

Often, when couples talk about money, the conversation becomes emotionally charged.

Counselors teach couples to become more aware of the stress signals given off by a spouse and how to react to those signals without becoming overly emotional. It's all about keeping lines of communication open, Eckert says.

"Talking about (their situation) together doesn't make couples any less worried," Lewis says, "but it removes the extra stress and improves their sense of closeness that 'we're in this together.' "


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  • Alex Wise
  • 2 January 2019
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