Debt is a huge problem for families these days. In recent weeks, newspapers like Toronto’s The Globe and Mail have been highlighting disturbing household finance trends, featuring families with maxed-out credit who are living so close to the line that one missed paycheque has the potential to sink them. Sadly, these articles come as no surprise to me.
In the vast majority of my divorce mediation cases, financial problems are cited by one or both spouses as a major contributor to the demise of the marriage. It’s not so much that money problems “cause” divorce – it’s more that the financial turmoil is a symptom of what’s really been wrong with the relationship for years. Moreover, how the debt problem is handled has a lot to do with whether the relationship can be saved or not.
Rarely are financial problems not a factor in divorce. But money challenges don’t cause the divorce – they are manifestations of other problems in the relationship, such as poor communication, lack of respect, lack of assertiveness, absence of a sense of common purpose, and differences in values, to name a few. I’ll give you three examples to illustrate what I mean:
Bill and Jennifer: I was happy with our life, but she always wanted more.
Bill says: “I worked really hard to support our family, but she made me feel like I was never earning enough money. She always compared me negatively to her father, and to her friends’ husbands. She’d ask why we couldn’t have fancy vacations like her friends had, and was constantly pressuring me to move into a bigger house. I was happy with the way things were, but I felt like it was never enough for her. So I agreed to move, hoping to make her happy. But the new mortgage crippled me. To make matters worse, she wasn’t willing to cut back in our lifestyle after the move, so we started using credit cards and the line of credit to pay for things. We started to fight all the time, and when we maxed out, everything came to a head. Now we have to sell the house, and we’ll have little to show for all our hard work once the debts are paid off and the divorce is final.”
Terri and Eric: I pulled more than my financial weight while he looked out for Number One.
Terri says: “My husband is a construction worker. He works hard during the construction season, but in the winter months he just collects government benefits and sits and watches TV all day. I’ve begged him to take on a second job in the winter – just doing anything to pull in some extra cash – but he’s always refused, telling me ‘I work hard the rest of the year and I deserve a break’ or ‘I’m not qualified for anything else.’ Meanwhile, I’m working full-time and taking care of the house and the children. As a direct result of his decreased income each year during the winter months, we couldn’t make our budget and we’ve accumulated over $60,000.00 of consumer debt just to make ends meet. I really resent being in this position simply because of his selfishness – he’s just not a team player and I’ve had it.”
Arun and Maya: We couldn’t say “no” to the kids.
Arun says: “Our kids are very expensive. They always have their hands out! We try to tell them that we have to budget our money, but they won’t listen. Our older one refuses to get a summer job. I know we should push her, but she just finished her first year of university and it was so stressful. She deserves a break. I just wish she would appreciate how expensive it was to sent her to university – we really couldn’t afford it but she wanted to go so badly. We’ve tried to give the girls the best – it’s just been so stressful. Our younger one is going to university next year and we don’t know how we’re going to pay for it. We’ve already refinanced our house three times and maxed out our line of credit and credit cards trying to give them the life we feel they deserve. We both love our kids and want the best for them, but the strain of raising them has ruined our marriage. I know there won’t be a lot to go around in the settlement, but we both agree that we owe it to the kids to set aside $20,000.00 for each of them from the sale proceeds of our house – that way we won’t feel so bad about putting them through the upheaval of a divorce.”
Did you notice that these three stories, different as they may seem, all have a common theme? All reflect major differences in financial values, and all involve poor communication, which has resulted in an inability to resolve these differences in productive ways.
In the case of Bill, the budget-conscious husband, and Jennifer, the impossible-to-satisfy wife, Bill was likely a poor communicator, and Jennifer was likely oblivious to the impact her words were having on her husband. Sometimes, in a quest for the “good life”, people become so goal-oriented that they fail to pay attention to the fact that their goals may not be shared by their spouses – or they may simply convince themselves that the goals are mutual, despite clear signals to the contrary.
People like this are often surprised that their marriages fall apart, and are filled with regret that they were so focused on material things that they placed insufficient value on the actual relationship – which may actually have been pretty good at one point, before crippling debt got in the way.
Terri, whose husband, Eric, refused to “get off the couch”, had a similar problem – lack of shared financial purpose – but rooted in a different cause, which was an imbalance in work ethics. Here, Terri might have tried a little harder to paint Eric a picture of the potential long-term consequences of his attitude. She might have sat him down and said, clearly and calmly, “I love you, but we’re jointly responsible for supporting our family. If you aren’t willing to get help and/or start making changes, I’m afraid our marriage might not survive much longer.”
That kind of direct talk can be very effective in helping people break out of ruts, but unfortunately, many people lack the assertiveness and/or diplomacy to have hard talks when they need to, and either blow up angrily from time to time or suffer in silence until they hit the breaking point. Here, a trip to a financial advisor and/or marriage counselor might have been helpful back when the debt started accumulating, when Terri first started to feel unable to get through to Eric.
Arun and Maya’s problem – allowing their children to control the financial agenda – is very common these days. Why? Often, giving in to kids arises from a desire to be “friends” with them, or a reluctance to spoil limited time with children by saying “no”; other times, it’s a function of a genuine desire to give their children “the best”, especially if the parents grew up with more modest means.
Problem is, there’s no limit to the financial demands children can make, and once the kids have learned that they don’t have to take no for an answer, it never ends. You establish a precedent for being a pushover. And over time, feeding the monster can meet totally depleting your own financial resources and ruining the marriage – especially when the parents disagree on how much to capitulate. Here, the problem is a function of a failure, or inability, to assert a joint philosophy that puts the marriage and family – not just the children – first.
Living beyond your means doesn’t just happen. Find out why it happened, make it stop, and find a common financial purpose – before it’s too late.
Marriage can be challenging at the best of times, but too many couples feel totally defeated these days. Between caring for children, holding down two full-time jobs, and keeping the household going, it can seem that there aren’t enough hours in a day to devote any time to the relationship. Add maxed out credit cards and constant financial stress to the mix and you have a recipe for disaster.
So what can you do if you find yourself in this position? Sit down with your spouse and express how important the marriage is to you. Explain that you both need to find a way to fix the money problems, or the stress could topple you. Make it clear that this is a priority, and a joint responsibility, and that if this isn’t addressed properly, things will only get worse.
See a financial advisor. See a counselor. Understand the role you’ve both played in creating the mess you’re in. Don’t just blame your spouse – take responsibility for your mistakes too. Make a plan – together. And stick with it.
Pledge to take joint responsibility for fixing things, both in your relationship and in your finances. If that means downsizing, cutting your budget, increasing your income, or all of the above, do these things, even if they’re difficult or painful – that is, do them if your marriage is important to you. After all, if you think it’s challenging to manage the finances of one household, managing two households after divorce is far, far worse. So get your house in order, before it’s too late. That way, you can stop living beyond your means, and just start living again.