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Communication helps relationships weather financial stress

Kelly Dilworth
Talking money

Financial uncertainty can strain even the most solid romantic partnership. But don’t give up. According to a new study in the Journal of Applied Communication Research, talking more openly about money — and learning more about it as a team — can strengthen your relationship and may even help inoculate it from money stress.

“During tough financial times, communication can help people cope,” said author Lynsey Romo in an Aug. 3 news release.

According to Romo, financial stress is a common factor in relationships. “Regardless of income level, I found that couples are uncertain about money — whether that’s how to put food on the table or whether to sell a second home.” But couples who communicate about their struggles and stand united as a team are far more likely to weather the uncertainty without devolving into toxic stress and conflict.

“What emerged as most important with respect to negotiating financial uncertainty, regardless of relational or socioeconomic status, was participants’ financial knowledge and reliance on strategic communication and communal coping,” said Romo in the report. “While financial strain and pressure can result in diminished relational quality and conflict, in the current study, effective partner communication and money management seemed to offset these risks.”

Romo came to her conclusions after interviewing 40 partnered individuals in a small Midwestern town. Romo asked them to describe their financial situation and how they and their partners had learned to cope with ongoing financial uncertainty. She found some couples dealt with anxiety by collecting information about their finances and educating themselves about their options. Others coped with periodic storms by leaning on each other for support and strategically communicating in ways that avoided turning disagreements into conflicts. People who had lived with financial uncertainty for a long time also tended to resist it less after they came to see uncertainty as being a key part of life you can’t avoid.

These couples tended to have stronger relationships with one another and coped more effectively with stress. “Indeed, several participants reported that as their communication improved and they were able to engage in communal coping with their spouse, their conflict declined and they were better able to manage uncertainty,” wrote Romo.

However, a number of couples coped in less effective ways, which negatively affected their relationships. For example, some refused to compromise on certain financial issues and struggled to communicate their positions. Others coped by ignoring their financial situations and choosing not to learn about or discuss it.

According to Romo, couples were never taught how to manage or even talk about money in their relationships, and personal stress levels often suffered as a result. “For the most part, participants who did not learn about finances from their parents and/or lacked financial communication skills with their romantic partner reported less success in managing uncertainty, regardless of income,” wrote Romo.

How to cope more effectively
If you grew up never learning about or talking about money, you too may have a harder time discussing finances with your partner. But there are steps you can take to improve your communication and coping skills, says Romo.

For example, equip yourself with the knowledge and vocabulary to discuss your personal finances by educating yourself as much as possible. Then use that knowledge to come up with a plan together for how to better manage your money.

According to Romo, couples who take joint responsibility for their finances and view financial issues as a mutual problem to be solved have an easier time coping with the uncertainty. Couples who use tailored communication strategies – such as talking about overspending dispassionately and without judgment or during periods when they’re more likely to feel relaxed — are also more successful at coping with financial stress. Coming up with a collective financial plan and creating clear roles for each partner can also help, she found.

“The biggest take-away here is that there are things people can do to help deal with financial uncertainty. Seeking out information, talking about money with your partner, working as a team and becoming financially literate can reduce uncertainty — and the related stress that uncertainty can cause in a relationship,” said Romo in the news release. “Financial talk is good for couples’ pocketbooks and relationships.”

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