Financial Stress, Mental Health, and Your Relationship: Practical Strategies for Couples

Mar 31, 2024 | Communication, Finances

Do you have money on your mind? Well, you’re in good company. The American Psychological Association’s (APA) 2023 Stress in America survey found that most people were stressing about money and the economy, and these levels have increased since 2019. Like other stressors, financial stress can have a massive impact on your mental health; you might notice your anxiety levels rising, your mood changing, and physical symptoms in your body.  

What happens when you’re dealing with financial stress, and you’re in a relationship? In some ways, being in a relationship can help with stress – your partner loves and supports you. In other ways,  stress about finances can negatively impact a relationship. But this doesn’t have to remain the case – learning to manage your financial stress individually and as a couple can significantly benefit your mental health. Let’s explore more practical strategies to get you started. 

 

You’re not alone

The last few years have been a doozy, and many people have struggled with several significant stressors. Finances are a top contender, and in the APA’s 2023 Stress in America survey, 72% of Americans reported feeling stressed about money. 

Compounding that stress, only 52% of adults in the survey reported feeling comfortable talking about money or their finances. However, about half (47%) said they wanted someone to help deal with the stress. 

 

Impacts of financial stress 

So, how does financial stress affect us? While each of us processes and deals with stress differently, there are a few common ways it impacts us. 

The impact of stress on our bodies is well-documented. While our bodies can handle small doses of stress, high or chronic stress significantly impacts our physical health. The APA noted that these levels of stress increase the risk of: 

  • Migraines 
  • Asthma attacks 
  • Hypertension 
  • Heart attack 
  • Stroke
  • Weight gain 
  • High blood pressure 
  • Suppressed immune system
  • Decreased testosterone 
  • Irregular or absent menstrual cycles 
  • Declined sex drive 

Stress also has an impact on our mental health. Long-term stress is connected to a variety of mental health difficulties, including: 

  • Anxiety
  • Depression 
  • Sleep issues (e.g., insomnia, hypersomnia) 
  • Concentration impairments
  • Memory difficulties 

As you can imagine, financial stress can negatively impact a relationship. While this article will focus on romantic, committed relationships, financial stress can also impact other relationships—with family members, friends, and those at work. 

The physical and mental impacts of financial stress can then wreak havoc on your relationship. The impact of financial stress often comes from the interaction of these issues with your relationship. Being a good partner is hard when your physical and emotional health is poor. If you’re dealing with financial stress, you may also be experiencing: 

  • Increased communication difficulties 
  • Decreased desire for physical intimacy 
  • Increased irritability with your partner 
  • Increased conflict
  • Isolation 
  • Decreased marital satisfaction 

 

Assess your stress in these four steps  

If you’re experiencing current financial stress, start with these steps: 

Step 1: Identify your stress 

Take a moment to pause and notice your stress. How does it manifest? Is it a physical symptom or a mental symptom? When does it arise, and what causes it to increase or decrease? 

Step 2: Identify your financial stressors 

What specifically stresses you about finances? Is your stress tied to paying bills, financial responsibilities, or investment decisions? Get as specific as possible. 

Step 3: Identify how you cope 

We all respond to and cope with stress differently. Some behaviors give us relief, and some can make it worse. To make things trickier, some strategies may work in one situation but make your stress worse in another.

Step 4: Identify your end game. 

If you could wave a wand to magically feel “better,” what would that look like? Don’t get bogged down with how you and your partner would get there. Just focus on identifying how you want to feel. What are the ideal interactions you’d like to have? 

Unhealthy coping strategies 

Now, let’s turn our attention to some unhealthy ways of coping. Below are some common strategies you may or may not realize you’re using to deal with stress. While not all these strategies are “unhealthy” all the time, for the most part, they tend to be unhelpful in the long run. 

    • Avoidance. Have you found yourself avoiding conversations about money with your partner or procrastinating on tasks like paying the bills? Avoidance is an effective tool, but one that only provides short-term relief. It also tends to compound anxiety over time, potentially leading to bigger problems down the road. 
    • Doing it all yourself. Do you find yourself holding all the financial stress in the relationship? Do you keep things inside to “not burden” your partner? While your intentions may be good, the action will likely increase friction in the relationship. 
    • Indecision and inaction. Financial stress can feel overwhelming, and decisions about money can impact your and your partner’s future. Despite the pressure, you have to address these decisions promptly. Have you noticed yourself struggling to make financial decisions? Or constantly seeking more (and more) information before taking action? There’s a chance your worries have paralyzed you, and this inaction can cause more problems and stress for you down the road. 
    • Impulsive decisions. On the flip side, making decisions with proper consideration can be beneficial. While being decisive is a strength, exploring whether your decision-making process tends to be impulsive is essential. To try and alleviate the stress, many individuals (or couples) may opt for impulsive choices simply to resolve the issue quickly. Do you find yourself making financial decisions with thorough consideration? Have you noticed a pattern of regret or more stress stemming from these impulsive decisions? 
    • Bottling up your emotions. Whether it’s to avoid feeling them or to spare your partner from the burden, this strategy often leads to more problems. Suppressing your feelings is like shoving all your groceries for a week in one bag—eventually, it won’t hold, and everything comes spilling out. Addressing your emotions as they arise is much more productive than dealing with a flood of them later on. 
    • Drugs or alcohol. Have you noticed that you’re drinking or using other substances more in times of financial stress? Having a drink or smoke may provide temporary relief, but it’s essential to realize that these do not address the core of what is causing your stress. Short-term solutions such as this can also impact your relationships, compounding an already stressful situation. 

Replace with better coping strategies

So, we covered what doesn’t really work long-term; now, let’s talk about more effective ways of coping with stress. 

    • Share the load. Handling financial matters alone, especially when they affect both partners, can lead to problems. Be open and transparent about your finances and work together to find solutions. Even if you don’t require help, talking through these matters with your partner decreases the likelihood of miscommunications and increases the feeling that you’re both “in it together.” 
    • Open communication. Strengthen your ability to have difficult conversations with your partner. Building a foundation of open and honest communication is essential for effectively addressing financial problems and stress. 
    • Prioritize tasks. Don’t try to solve all your problems at once. Prioritize your concerns and tackle them one by one. Focusing your efforts on one issue at a time increases your chance of success and often reduces stress. Celebrate your progress, and use it as motivation to keep going! 
    • Budget strategically. While it may not be the most exciting task, establishing good financial habits is critical for reducing stress in the long run. Start by creating a budget (with your partner) that outlines all your expenses, income, and saving goals. Find areas where you can regain control, like setting up automatic bill payments or reducing discretionary spending. Explore opportunities to boost your income as well. 
    • Prioritize sleep. There’s no way around it… humans need sleep. Research indicates that insufficient sleep impairs mood, decision-making, and memory. Even an extra hour of sleep can significantly lower your stress level and improve your ability to manage stress. 
    • Physical exercise. Regular exercise is a proven stress reliever. When you’re stressed, it can be challenging to prioritize exercise. Consult resources from reputable sources like the Mayo Clinic for tips on managing stress through physical exercise. 
    • Ask the experts. You don’t know what you don’t know. Recognize that you may not have the answer, and don’t hesitate to seek help. A financial advisor can offer you and your partner guidance on financial planning, help you navigate complex economic issues, and stay on track toward your shared goals. Likewise, a mental health professional (e.g., a therapist or psychologist) can help you identify triggers, implement better coping strategies, and improve communication in your relationship. 

The bottom line

Humans are wired for connection, and the relationships in our lives have a profound impact on our mental health. Healthy relationships are characterized by open and honest communication, respect, and genuine care for the other. 

In navigating the complexities of financial stress within relationships, it’s essential to recognize the significant impact it can have on your mental health and the overall well-being of your relationship. Maybe it’s the burden of indecision, the pitfalls of impulsive choices, or the drawbacks of suppressing your emotions; either way, you and your partner must address them head-on. By identifying your current strategies and replacing them with healthier ones, you can better manage your financial stress and mitigate the impact on your relationship. Remember, pick and choose what to start with – don’t try to change all your habits at once. And don’t be afraid to seek help from financial advisors or mental health providers. Try a few of these practical strategies out, and together, you can build a stronger, more resilient relationship despite financial stress.

You are writing your life story. Get on the same page with a prenup. For love that lasts a lifetime, preparation is key. Safeguard your shared tomorrows, starting today.
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