How Economic Stress Can Strengthen Your Relationship
Post-pandemic society has shifted from caring primarily about health to struggling to maintain wealth. Soaring gas and grocery prices have become a universal challenge for couples and a common cause of conflict. But not all couples are affected. According to research, some partners are able to tighten their relationship while tightening their belts. How do they do? By working together.
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Tamara D. Afifi, et al. (2018), examined the different ways couples communicate about financial uncertainty and the link to mental health, stress and the possibility of divorce.[i] His research acknowledges that economic uncertainty creates conflict and stress for couples, but indicates that it can actually strengthen marriages. It depends on the communication patterns of the couples involved.
Affifi, et al. studied 82 Caucasian and Latino married couples engaged in stressful conversations about the economic uncertainty they experienced after the Great Recession. The researchers found that, contrary to what some might expect, many couples showed resilience and growth. Couples’ degree of resilience when discussing financial uncertainty and stress was expressed through four communication channels: 1) unifying, 2) prosperous, 3) pragmatic, and 4) at-risk.
Affifi, et al. note that these four different communication patterns predicted stress, mental health problems, and divorce risk. The team found that, overall, couples whose lines of communication were unified/fulfilled had high levels of psychological well-being, less stress and anxiety, and less of what they call “divorce propensity” compared to pragmatic or at-risk couples. couples.
How does this work? Affifi, et al. explain that the couples coming together overcame and managed the state of financial uncertainty by rising up and communicating as a united front against the Great Recession. They consistently reaffirmed each other’s family contributions, celebrated their partner as part of the solution, and attributed financial distress to factors outside of their relationship. Accordingly, Afifi et al. explain that the stress of financial uncertainty brought these couples together.
Successful couples have been described as encompassing all communication patterns used by unified couples, plus the demonstrated ability to grow from stress and financial uncertainty. Affifi, et al. explain that in addition to using the same communication patterns as unifying couples, successful couples have actually verbalized their personal growth. They used phrases indicating an expanded perspective, demonstrated that they had learned something positive or new from the Great Recession, or had grown personally and relationally from the experience.
Pragmatic couples, unlike the other groups, were less emotional in the way they talked about money. They were more likely to focus on basic daily family needs, such as gas and groceries. Affifi, et al. note that pragmatic partners were more likely to be objective and focus their attention on discussing the issue itself, without emotional influence.
Affifi, et al. describe the fourth type of couple as “at risk”. As the name suggests, couples at risk were those who turned on each other when discussing finances, creating an emotional divide. Rather than dealing with outside forces as a team, such as unified and thriving couples, at-risk partners could not identify the basis of their financial problems and uncertainties without blaming each other, making threats, directing blame, and engage in disaffirmation towards their partners.
Challenges are inevitable; the conflict does not have to be the result. For healthy couples, coping with difficult times as a team builds resilience, respect, and relationship stability.