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Sour Economy Tests `For Better For Worse' Marriage Vows

  • Margaret Bernstein Religion News Service
  • 2009 3 Jan
Sour Economy Tests `For Better For Worse' Marriage Vows

Money has gotten so tight for Mary Brown and her husband that she has taken a part-time job as a stripper.

"A furniture stripper," she explains with a devilish laugh.

A sense of humor has pulled the Browns through hard times, but even that's evaporating as the couple -- married for 18 years and with five children -- struggle to keep up with their bills. Every month, the high-interest loan they took out to buy a house in Cleveland gobbles up half their income, and what's left barely covers utilities and food.

Her husband, Shawn, 40, escapes from stress by spending 12 hours a day or more on the road as a truck driver.

When he gets home, he prefers to talk calmly about the bills in the privacy of their bedroom. "Not me," says Mary, 34. By then, she has fretted over finances so much that "I'm screaming, `The bills got to be paid, give me some money!'"

Like many couples in this dismal economy, the Browns are turning to experts for help. Together they attended a homeowners workshop last month and are trying to renegotiate their loan before their adjustable mortgage resets in January.

Clergy, therapists, debt counselors and others in the financial industry report hearing from more distressed couples struggling with a recession-era grab bag of troubles, from job loss and foreclosure to receding retirement accounts and uninsured illnesses.

Joe Rock, a therapist in suburban Rocky River, Ohio, says he has never had so many clients dealing with joblessness in his 25 years of practice. "In the last week, I saw 15 people who are out of work or who own a business that's failing," he said.

One byproduct of the economy, some experts say, is that fewer couples are calling it quits. In Cleveland's Cuyahoga County, the divorce rate has been shrinking steadily over the past three years.

"People are rethinking divorces," said Rock. "They realize they can't even afford attorneys," much less the cost of supporting two households.

Some say the sour economy is accomplishing a moral turnaround that ministers couldn't: convincing couples to not walk away when things get tough, but rather to forgive each other and remain committed to their vows, "for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer."

That's heartening news for Ronald Klein, pastor of missions and care at Parkside Church in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, where he has never seen such a long waiting list of couples seeking emotional guidance and financial help. Couples seem more willing than they were five or 10 years ago to seek marital counseling, said Klein, who has been providing pastoral care for nearly 50 years.

Overall, the divorce dip is a healthy trend, so long as couples aren't remaining in abusive relationships, said Linda Johanek, executive director of Cleveland's Domestic Violence Center. Economic woes are affecting those relationships, too, making "leaving or divorcing less of an option now because finances are so bad," Johanek said.

Victims shouldn't stay in an unhealthy relationship, she said, but instead work with trained advocates to plan a safe exit strategy. In marriages where violence isn't an issue, the threatening economy is forcing many to come to grips with how well they handle conflict.

"Sometimes I ride him a little too hard," Mary Brown admitted of her financial confrontations with her husband. "It's stressful. I'm constantly telling him, `You have to find a way to make this work.'"

Other couples avoid any discussion of financial problems. Said Andrea Kinast, foreclosure mediator for Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, "Some women call into our office after they've found out their husband stopped making mortgage payments. There wasn't enough money and he didn't want to tell her.

"She's worried so she makes the call but she doesn't want the husband to know," Kinast said. "It's a tense situation and a delicate one."

Yet, fear might be just the thing that can save a couple from financial disaster, believes Karin Maloney Stifler, a certified financial planner.

"I've never seen a case in my 18 years of doing this where there hasn't been a reason to have hope," she said. "Through any kind of crisis, whether it's health or financial, families can grow closer and stronger."

Just like a high cholesterol score might persuade a person to cut out french fries, the economic downturn can scare today's couples into cutting their expenses, especially if they're habitual overspenders.

Stifler knows of one affluent couple caught off-guard when their money faucet abruptly dried up. They had no savings to fall back on when the husband's salary and bonuses were cut drastically.

Together they agreed to trim the fat from their budget and enlisted their children in the effort, Stifler said. Both kids opted to cut their tuition bills in half by switching from out-of-state private universities to state schools.

"The parents wanted this to be a lesson for the kids -- to live within your means," Stifler said.

Now is the time to build creative conflict resolution into a relationship, said Rock, the therapist. Be open-minded in brainstorming solutions, instead of insisting that your partner do things your way.

A couple at war over how much to spend on holiday gifts may have stormed away from the argument in the past, he said, but an empty bank account is just the thing to make them sit down and negotiate.

But don't wait until you're at the breaking point, advised Klein, the Parkside pastor.

He said it's too late for him to help "when the sheriff is on his way to foreclose. We regrettably don't see people coming in early enough."

Margaret Bernstein writes for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

(c) 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved.