Can Debt Destroy A Relationship? Here's What Couples Counselors Say.

It's never really about the money.

It’s no secret that money problems are a leading cause of stress in relationships. And for a significant portion of Americans, debt is a major source of money strife that doesn’t bode well for their love lives.

More than half of millennials in relationships agree that they don’t want to get married until their finances are in order, according to a survey by Credit Karma. Forty-two percent say transparency about a partner’s finances is key to a healthy relationship, while 71% say it’s at least somewhat important their partner’s finances be up to certain standards before marriage.

So, what if you or your partner is dealing with a load of debt? Is it a death sentence for the relationship?

“Money is a complicated beast in the therapy room, and in real life. It is a charged topic that is, for many, taboo,” said Joy Lere, a psychologist with a practice focused on the merger of money and mindset. “It is more than simple math … Differences in money management and unspoken rules about how it is discussed (or not) can lead to significant friction or fracture in a relationship.”

If you’re concerned that debt will ruin your relationship, know that’s not necessarily the case. It depends on how you and your partner handle it together.

Debt Is Simply A Catalyst

When it comes to couples with debt, the money alone is not the root cause of relationship problems. It’s the pressure and conflict that often arises from dealing with that debt that can bring to light other issues in the relationship.

“Debt can serve a stand-alone stressor, but when superimposed on other relational strain can amplify problems in a relationship,” Lere said. Issues such as secrecy about spending, disagreements on how to handle finances and varying levels of comfort carrying a balance can all be sources of tension.

That’s because money also is a sort of emotional currency in relationships. It can be a vehicle for communicating certain messages that are not being put into words between two people. When misused, money can be a bid for power, control or punishment. Spending can also be used as a stand-in for other unmet needs.

Amy Rollo, a psychotherapist and owner of Heights Family Counseling in Houston, agreed. “As a couples therapist, it is actually rare for money stress to be the biggest issue. For most couples, it is difficulty managing conflict, feeling disconnected, trust issues, commitment difficulties or an inability to create shared meaning in their relationship that causes the most distress,” she said.

While some couples may view debt as a deal breaker, Rollo said that for most, it’s dishonesty. “I’ve had several clients present to couples counseling because they feel deceived by their partner. They share they did not realize their partner’s debt burden until they were already married or engaged,” Rollo said.

Lere put it this way: “Money is rarely just about numbers.” For a couple to solve financial issues that may be leading to strain in the relationship, they need to develop insight into their own relationships with money and figure out the psychological reasons behind the mismanagement.

Additionally, Lere said that the circumstances and spirit under which the debt was accumulated can color the impact it has on a couple. “If a disproportionate amount of debt belongs to one person (whether it was accumulated before or during the relationship), it can lead to feelings of resentment if the repayment requires deep sacrifice of a partner.”

“Money is rarely just about numbers,” said psychologist Joy Lere. But it doesn't have to be a deal-breaker.
PeopleImages via Getty Images
“Money is rarely just about numbers,” said psychologist Joy Lere. But it doesn't have to be a deal-breaker.

That’s not to say that dealing with a massive amount of debt isn’t stressful on its own. Debt is a major burden that makes it difficult to spend on activities and shared goals as a couple. But when it comes to the relationship, it shouldn’t be something that tears you apart unless there are other factors, such as communication and coping skills, that need some work, too.

“In my work with couples, I’ve found debt can negatively impact a relationship, but doesn’t have to,” said Brent Sweitzer, a marriage counselor in Cumming, Georgia. “Family therapist Virginia Satir famously said, ‘Problems are not the problem. It’s the coping.’ I see this truth play out daily in couple interactions and communications.”

After all, higher levels of debt ― particularly student loan debt ― are becoming the norm for millennials entering relationships and starting families, according to Sweitzer. “What seems to make the difference for couples that are able to navigate it successfully and even get closer through managing debt is how they communicate about it,” he said.

Communication Is More Than Just Talking

When you get down to it, the root of most problems between couples is communication. If debt is placing undue stress on you or your partner and it’s leading to conflict, there’s a good chance that your communication about the problem needs some work ― or isn’t happening at all.

However, Sweitzer points out that communication is much more than simply airing your grievances to each other. “It’s seeking to understand the other person and the many factors that shaped them,” he said. For instance, how did the person with the debt get in that situation in the first place? What did they learn from childhood about managing money and the ethics of debt? Did they learn to cope with emotional difficulties by spending, by depriving themself?

“If both people can seek to understand, they can both feel understood,” Sweitzer said. ”Then debt could be a catalyst for connecting at a deeper level and uncovering solutions to problems that each person wouldn’t have come up with on their own.”

Debt Can Make Or Break A Relationship

To say that debt is ever a blessing is probably a huge stretch. However, it can serve as a tool for helping couples learn how to work together.

“For couples who are honest from the start, the debt might not be a big deal or it can even be something that strengthens the couple,” Rollo said. You can join forces to tackle the debt and really feel like you’re on the same team, working toward a larger goal.

However, if you struggle to see finances in the same way, or have different values when it comes to money, it can be helpful to work with a couples therapist. Counseling can help each person learn how to express their needs, while also providing validation and empathy for their partner’s needs and viewpoint, according to Rollo. “The way we view money can be such a personal thing … this is why it is important for each partner to really get to the root with empathy and respect,” she said.

Managing conflict is an inherent part of being in a relationship, and debt is just one of several challenges a couple will face together. “Without agreement, a plan and a united front to address the issue, debt has the potential to result in the death of a relationship,” Lere said. “It also can be a powerful catalyst for change and growth. When couples are able to identify a shared obstacle or challenge, begin to strategize collaboratively and work together to overcome a problem, this can actually be used as an opportunity to deepen their bond and strengthen their relationship.”

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