Academic journal article Family Relations

Couples Experiencing Financial Strain: What We Know and What We Can Do

Academic journal article Family Relations

Couples Experiencing Financial Strain: What We Know and What We Can Do

Article excerpt

Although much has been written about how to help couples negotiate regarding different spending styles or risk tolerance levels, less has been said about ways in which therapists can assist couples to understand each other's experience of distress regarding financial issues and find constructive individual and dyadic ways to reduce the distress. Given the importance of this topic in today's unstable global and national economies, this article reviews empirical findings regarding the effects of financial strain on couples' relationships as well as the effectiveness of individual and dyadic coping strategies. The authors discuss options for intervening professionally with couples experiencing financial strain and provide assessment and treatment guidelines using stress theories and evidence-based cognitive-behavioral couple interventions.

Key Words: coping, couples, couples' therapy, financial strain, marital relationships, stress.

The worldwide economic crisis of 2008 increased the number of families struggling with financial problems related to unemployment, reduced income, depleted savings, and increased debt (Moore & Palumbo, 2009). Some families were directly affected (e.g., losing jobs), whereas others whose finances were not affected may worry because of the climate of economic instability. The crisis may have exacerbated concerns of those already experiencing financial strain, that is, worry about one's current and future financial situation, because of their personal characteristics (e.g., tendency toward catastrophic thinking), personal history (e.g., economic hardship in childhood), and differences in romantic partners' financial management styles. Given that financial strain tends to create marital distress (e.g., Kinnunen & Feldt, 2004; Robila & Krishnakumar, 2005), therapists often treat couples whose relationships have been affected negatively by the economic climate (Gale, Goetz, & Bermudez, 2009). Some couples may reduce financial and marital strain by consulting with a financial counselor and improving their joint financial management (Knuckey, 2003), but others with adequate financial skills may benefit more from couple therapy focused on understanding each other's financial strain and finding more effective ways of coping individually and as a couple with their strain. Although much has been written about helping partners negotiate about their financial management styles (e.g., Knuckey), less has been said about how therapists can assist couples to understand each other's distress regarding finances and develop constructive coping strategies to reduce distress. This article reviews the literature on effects of financial strain on couples' relationships, as well as individual and dyadic coping strategies for managing strain. We describe alternative approaches to assist couples regarding financial issues and provide assessment and treatment guidelines for couple therapists that are based on cognitive-behavioral and stress theories.

FINANCIAL STRAIN IS SUBJECTIVE

Stress theory (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984) distinguishes between the objective quality of a stimulus and aperson's subjective appraisal of it. Individual characteristics, history, and cultural differences as well as current circumstances and mood may all contribute to individuals perceiving the same stimulus differently, resulting in diverse emotional and behavioral responses to it. Lazarus and Folkman proposed that the degree to which an individual experiences an event as stressful is based on two stages of appraisal: First, the individuals evaluate how much the situation poses a danger to their well-being, and, second, they evaluate the degree to which their resources are adequate to deal with the situation. The individual is likely to experience subjective stress when the perceived demands of the situation exceed the perceived sufficiency of the resources. Specifically, in situations involving objective job loss, reduced savings, or increased debt, individuals will experience subjective financial strain when they perceive that available resources are not adequate to meet the financial demands (Voydanoff & Donnelly, 1988). …

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