Debt and marriage: Ignore at your peril

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The author Alexandre Dumas observed, “The chains of marriage are so heavy it takes two to bear them, sometimes three.”

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 credit cards.

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.

He spent, she spent

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 Harmony.

“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 says.

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
  • Things
  • 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 says.

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.”