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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.

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One young woman who came to Jeffrey Wasserman's law office recently seeking divorce counseling was sobered by the financial realities of dividing assets when the value of homes and portfolios is down.

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"After I went over what their lifestyle was now and what it would become after a divorce, she went home and is in the process of trying to reconcile the marriage," says Mr. Wasserman, a divorce lawyer in Boca Raton. "It all was grounded in the economic downturn."

Noting that divorce filings are down about 17 percent in Florida, Wasserman says, "People are deciding to stay together to see if they can pool their resources to get through this hard economic time. They're keeping resources in one pot rather than dividing them."

Yet he cautions that couples must reconcile for the right reasons. "Unless they and their spouse do something to try to rekindle the flame or put the marriage together, it's going to wind up terminating somewhere down the road."

Sheryl Kurland, author of "Everlasting Matrimony," likes to put today's challenges in a historical context.

When she interviewed 75 couples who had been married 50 years or more, many talked about losing jobs and living through hard times. For most, she says, "Divorce never entered the picture. They said, 'Somehow we're going to work this out.' These couples simply did not buy what they couldn't afford. If they couldn't buy it [then], they would go home and say, 'How can we save our pennies so we can buy the washing machine?' "

The couples also found creative ways to make their relationship lively, Ms. Kurland says. "They would cook a meal together, pack a picnic lunch and go to a park, or turn on the radio and dance. They were spending time together without spending money." She adds, "The ingredients for a healthy, loving relationship never change. Only the peripheral factors around you change."

Communication is essential. "Decisions must be agreed upon together with a view towards reducing the burdens," says Jerome Wisselman, a lawyer in Great Neck, N.Y.

Although family specialists agree that it is helpful for couples to share their concerns, some caution that constantly voicing fears will only fuel anxieties. "Keep the conversations, even the disagreements, focused on the subject and not the person," says Maryann Karinch, an author of books on interpersonal skills. "Do not make accusatory or sarcastic remarks that criticize your partner's competence or judgment." She also recommends that couples going through anxious financial times try some activity – athletic, volunteer, intellectual – that draws on their talents and focuses on something positive and mutually satisfying.

Instead of letting the financial stress rip a family apart, couples can experience it as an opportunity to pull together, says Belinda Rachman, a divorce attorney in Carlsbad, Calif.

Coontz takes the long view. "One of the things that can come out of this experience, difficult though it is, is a renewed understanding that our own individual fortunes as a family or a marriage are really not separable from those of other families," she says. "If you have compassion for other people and gratitude toward other people, you are also more likely to have that toward your own family members."