Don't let debt ruin your relationship

By Benjamin Salisbury


Money problems and relationship problems often seem to go hand in hand - but does one really beget the other? According to experts, yes.

Relate, a charity that helps couples with relationship problems, found that 14% of people hide debt from their partner.

And most debt advisors (93%), say personal and family relationships are important to a client's ability to manage debt.

"Couples often feel they don't have a solution going forward, but one partner may be reluctant to confront the issue because they don't want to cause an argument, lose respect or expose vulnerability," says Simone Gnessen, founder of Wise Monkey Financial Coaching.

Relate also discovered 16% of adults (8.3 million people) in Britain are currently in "problem debt". Of these:

  • 20% have experienced the breakdown of a relationship with a partner where debt was either the main reason or a contributing factor.
  • 38% said debt had a negative impact on their relationship with their partner.
  • 34% said their partner had a different approach to money.
  • 25% argue about money, debt, and/or other financial issues with their partner at least once a fortnight.
  • 9% say they argue with their children once a week or more, three times the rate of those not currently in problem debt.

The numbers are backed up by a separate report from debt charity StepChange, which found 47% of its clients have hidden debt from a partner and 12% are currently doing so.

"That doesn't change until they have a plan," Gnessen says. "However, there are always solutions."

Why are debt and relationships tied to tightly?
"The main reasons for hiding debt from a partner are feeling bad about breaking the financial agreement the couple have, knowing a partner may disapprove, and not wanting to be judged or shamed and not being able to control spending," Maggie Baker, psychologist and financial therapist, said in an emailed response to questions.

Relate's research backs this up, with more than half (51%) of respondents citing that they feel ashamed about debt, followed by 46% who said they feared their partners' reaction.

"Money is like a magnet for beliefs, attitudes and emotions," said Baker. "The longer it is not talked about openly and authentically, the more it indirectly comes out in a relationship and creates conflict, withdrawal, irritability or anxiety." 

How can couples align their finances?
Both partners need to be aware of the problems that secret spending brings, and acknowledge what each other's weak points are.

"Acknowledge your habits and attitude towards money and create aligned financial goals," Gnessen says. "Is one of you a planner who saves and the other a spender with an all-action personality?"

If so, you can come up with a plan so that the spender can freely spend a certain amount each week or each month, without guilt. That way, the planner can factor that amount into the budget and not feel powerless.

"Split responsibilities accordingly, so you can work harmoniously with your different habits and history to reduce potential risks and pitfalls," Gnessen says.

"Also, understand that you are not alone," she adds. "It is common that members of a couple are different. It's what attracts us to each other. It can cause tension, so talk about it and decide how to work together as a couple."

How being open about money can benefit you
Once you've reached an understanding that openness about spending is beneficial, you can plan for a successful financial future together and "your relationship and your bank balance should reap the rewards," says Gnessen.

"The process will bring you together and you'll become more resilient and harmonious as a couple and better able to survive difficult times in life and with your finances," she says. "It opens up opportunities. If you have debt, worry and stress about money, you are less able to think about doing other positive things." 

See related: Debt series: Why we lie about debtHow to manage initial baby costsMen, women and money -- who wins the battle of the sexes?

Published: 21 December 2017