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Marriages follow the ups and downs of the economy

During tough economic times, couples find that financial problems can affect their marriage.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 17, 2008

Scott Wallace - staff


Life changed in June for Thomas and Jennifer Dodson of Sacramento, Calif., when he was laid off by the architecture firm where he worked. He immediately started his own consulting firm. Although the work is rewarding and fulfilling, it continues to be an "immense struggle," he says.

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Yet he praises his wife for being "more than great" throughout this experience. "She has been a rock. Despite the stress and turmoil this has brought into our life, this has made us closer than ever. I don't know how people do it without the support of their spouse. Having that other person there whispering in your ear and telling you you can do it is so powerful."

As families face layoffs, shrinking retirement funds, and credit-card debt, economic uncertainties can test marriages and relationships. Some couples, like the Dodsons, are finding renewed strength and closeness.

Others will head for divorce court. Still others are trying to solve their differences in more amicable ways. Whatever the circumstances, Howard Markman, codirector of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, reminds couples that even though they don't have control over what happens with their employment, they do have control over their support for each other. "Focus on what you can control," he says. "That's your marriage and your family."

These challenges affect couples at all income levels. "Often women have expectations regarding their husband's ability to produce, provide, and protect," says Elinor Robin, a divorce mediator in Boca Raton, Fla. "When he is unable to meet these expectations and she is unable to accept and see beyond her needs, there is a chipping away at the bond that connects them."

Husbands face challenges, too. Szifra Birke, a wealth counselor in Chelmsford, Mass., tells of a client who earns $200,000 a year. "He has such extreme anxiety from losing $160,000 [in the stock market] that he is snapping at his wife and children for going to the movies. He is micromanaging all purchases, including Dunkin' Donuts coffee, and he told his wife she shouldn't drive so much or text message their kids."

In addition to conflicts like these over spending and saving, those who are under economic stress tend to be less able to notice things that are going well in their relationships with their spouse and children, says Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families in Chicago. "As soon as something goes wrong, they will be much more conscious of any behavior that is not helpful and tend to respond to it much more abruptly and negatively: 'You didn't pay that bill on time.' One of the first things that falls out of family life under stress are little exchanges of gratitude and appreciation that maintain smooth relationships. Appreciation is so important in families."