Discussing Personal Debt in a Relationship

January 15, 2021. By Ashley Agnew:

The beginning stages of a relationship are exciting as the shooting stars of promised wishes decorate the pleasant exchanges of new love. The encapsulating feelings of warmth and security ensure you notice their presence by sharing with your body the tiniest tingles and butterflies at each thought of togetherness.  With your heart playing jump rope and your cheeks in a game of tug of war pulling a seemingly everlasting grin, what could be left to think about other than the beautiful scene before you, clearer than ever with just the slighted shade of rose.

The petal lined path of love eventually takes on a different look, however, becoming more complex and sometimes rocky.   With open communication, however, the rockiest of terrain can be evened out into a smooth foundation.  Studies in both the fields of finance and psychology have discovered that disagreements surrounding money are the most common causes of stress and harsh arguments in a relationship. One reason for this is that personal finance topics are easy to avoid until completely necessary, allowing underlying concerns (or money disorders) to brew until a problem arises. As with so many undertakings, however, it is beyond your comfort zone that growth truly occurs. For this reason, we offer couples financial counseling for coupleships at any stage; whether that be moving forward to the next level via cohabitation or marriage, all the way through retirement, all can benefit. These sessions, guided by the teachings of financial therapy to enhance communication and planning strategies, are not only valuable for dealing with presented issues, but also for building the foundation of financial wellbeing in any relationship.

A common question that we field in these sessions, particularly amongst premarital couples, is how to make a plan for tackling personal debt. Concerns arise surrounding how to pay debts down in a way that furthers the financial goals of the couple yet does not create resentment are very valid. Some partners feel that a hesitation is a sign to step away from the combination of financial efforts, or even the conversation altogether, however it is a natural feeling that should instead be brought to the surface.

The handling of previous personal debt is a conversation to be had, at a minimum, before the marriage to prevent future money arguments.  Once the couple is legally joined, the debt too should all be viewed as joint debt, as this is the only way to truly strategize for the family unit. If this causes disdain, it should be discussed purposefully during a time dedicated to a productive discussion rather than just in passing thereby dropping a bomb on the other partner. Married couples can lean on the strategy of staying focused on the long-term goals which cannot coexist with the debt to guide the discussion.  If the couple is not married, then this is a good opportunity to have a truly open and honest discussion regarding finances and financial personalities.

Reflecting at a personal level, my husband and I lived apart for the first years of our relationship and marriage while he was stationed at a Naval base out of the region.  Our style of money management has taken on many renditions through the journey of our relationship through managing multiple homes, childcare, travel expenses, tax calculations, etc. before even combining households.  The only way to navigate this successfully was to be brutally honest not only about the debt and spending habits that we each brought to the relationship, but also the expectations of the other partner in the relationship.  Discussing expectations is often the missing link to pre-marital financial discussions, and when expectations are assumed rather than clarified, resentment has a greater chance of tarnishing the harmony of the relationship.

We know that it can be difficult to begin financial planning discussions and it truly takes courage to face your finances head on.  Furthermore, an additional layer of stress is present when there is fear that the conversations may put a relationship with a loved one at risk. The true risk, however, comes with avoiding the role that money plays in your lives together. We have numerous resources at Centerpoint to assist in facilitating these important conversations in a relaxed environment, and we welcome our clients and their families to reach out if we may be of any assistance. Investing in your financial wellbeing an act of self-care for your coupleship; do not overlook the opportunity to get your money matters in order while the view is still has its hints of rose.