Debt has the power to wreck a marriage
The author Alexandre Dumas observed, "The
chains of marriage are so heavy it takes two to bear them, sometimes
Dumas simply wanted to rationalize infidelity.
But the Frenchman's quip conveys truth, even for people who remain
faithful to their spouses. For some couples, the third point of
the marriage triangle isn't a person at all, but a wallet full of
Debt has the power to wreck a marriage.
Sometimes debt does its work and couples never
recognize it. They blame breakups, fights and tension on more obvious
causes -- not on the underlying problem of mounting bills and dwindling
bank accounts. At other times there is little doubt that money problems
are the source of the erosion of a relationship.
Marriage going stale? Take that seductive plastic
out for a night on the town. Surf over to eBay and overbid for another
useless Beanie Baby. Play another overpriced round of golf. Feel
the guilty thrill of unnecessary spending. Repeat until spouse hits
you over the head with a frying pan.
Making matters worse, spouses often gravitate
to extremes, one taking the role of overspender and the other donning
the robe of hoarder, says Olivia Mellan, author of Overcoming
Overspending and Money
"Whoever is the effective spender is going
to be angry, unsupportive, hostile and maybe threaten divorce,"
she says, referring to the household's responsible money-user. "It
creates incredible marital discord."
The tension comes out in various ways, she
adds: "It can be everything from underlying chronic tension
to withholding sex to screaming fights to ultimatums."
On the other hand, the overspender often feels
belittled and trapped by his or her angry, unsupportive spouse.
Muttering darkly about the ol' ball and chain, the overspender might
feel like a 4-year-old at the supermarket, forever told that the
candy aisle is off limits.
With pointed fingers, guilty secrets and feelings
of entrapment, excessive debt can corrode a marriage.
Some couples deal with excessive debt in a
way that hinders healing. They focus on the suffering instead of
the reason for the overspending, says Celia Ray Hayhoe, assistant
professor of family studies, at the University of Kentucky.
"One person will say, 'You did this and
now we have to pay for this and I have to suffer,' " she
Identify the real problem
Think of ruinous debt as an elephant in the living room. When
you come home and find an elephant in the house, you don't sit with
your spouse and lament all the damage that the creature is causing
-- not for long, anyway. Instead of assigning blame to whoever left
the door open, you find someone who can help you evict the elephant,
then you repair the damage.
Likewise, squabbling over debt just shifts
blame without solving the problem.
"Families tend to not sit down and discuss
money and money issues," Hayhoe says. "A lot of times
they bring in a lot of baggage from their families of origin."
Yes, that's right, the root of a lot of poor
spending habits lies in the attitudes and practices that your parents
instilled in you. Don't blame mom, though. She did the best she
could. Instead, recognize which of your attitudes and habits don't
square with reality or which make you unhappy.
Tough to do? Yes, it is. That's why experts
recommend finding someone to help carry the heavy chain of self-appraisal.
In other words, they suggest that you find a person or group to
replace that wallet full of credit cards.
Just admit it
The first step is to admit that there is a problem. Then, experts
say, it's time to find a therapist or attend meetings of Debtors
Anonymous. Then the overspender should find what Mellan variously
calls a money mentor or a "loving limit-setter" and talk
to that person several times a week. And the overspender should
take the money mentor along on shopping trips.
"Overspenders shouldn't be walking into
stores to buy anything alone," she says. "Staying out
of stores where they tend to overspend is an important thing."
It's not a good idea to appoint one's spouse
as the money mentor because that person will be perceived as a nag,
someone to resist.
If you recognize that Mellan's approach sounds
like a 12-step program in the mold of Alcoholics Anonymous, you're
right. You have the admission of a problem, the declaration of powerlessness,
the selection of a sponsor (the loving limit-setter), possibly even
the circles of folding chairs in smoke-filled church basements.
Some experts argue that overspenders rack up
the bills to fill some void in their lives -- a hollowness that
can't be filled by spending.
Take back control
In fact, the void grows along with the feeling of losing control
over spending. Tom O'Connor, a certified financial planner with
The Keller Group in Irvine, Calif., recommends taking a series of
steps to wrest back control of spending.
"It's a higher level of feeling to control
the spending, and then you realize you do have choices because you're
not a slave to your debt," he says.
He recommends that couples talk calmly about
the debt problem and classify their purchases into three categories:
- Debt reduction and savings
- Experiences (This category includes vacations,
recreation, entertainment, dining out and gifts)
Fun is a necessity
"I think you've got to say to yourself, 'We're going to
spend a certain amount on experiences,' and then figure out how
much you want to spend on savings and reducing debt," O'Connor
You might think that O'Connor has it backward.
Shouldn't you figure out how much you want to spend on debt reduction,
then budget for things and experiences? O'Connor makes the point
that you're more likely to stick to a spending and savings plan
if you make room for pleasure.
"There's a certain amount of fun and variety
that you need," he says. "Recognize that you're going
to spend a little bit of money on fun."
Or, as Alexandre Dumas said on another occasion:
"I think wealth has lost much of its value if it have not wine."