Here’s how to keep your relationship strong during these financially uncertain times

COVID-19 has wreaked financial havoc on the nation’s economy. Tens of millions of Americans have already filed for unemployment, and many more will likely follow suit. These are terribly uncertain times.

While you certainly don’t need a significant other to feel stressed out these days, economic and financial hardships can be especially problematic for romantic relationships. Money problems and feelings of financial dishonesty are among the most frequently cited reasons for divorces, breakups, and arguments. A recent University of Arizona study investigated how different couples cope with financial problems and came to several fascinating conclusions.

First and foremost, the study found that couples who practiced “relationship maintenance behaviors” were usually able to weather financial storms much better than others. In fact, many couples who showed these traits actually said their money problems had brought them closer to one another. 

So, what are these maintenance behaviors? They’re simple actions, but behaviors that nonetheless are often forgotten during stressful times. Remembering to be there for one another, to respect each other, and showing love and affection. The term “relationship maintenance behaviors” isn’t exactly romantic, but the actions behind the term are the bedrock of any healthy relationship.

“A big take-home message is the importance of these relationship maintenance behaviors, especially when you’re experiencing financial stress,” explains lead study author Ashley LeBaron, a doctoral student in the University of Arizona Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, in a press release. “It’s hard to remember to do that when you’re in the middle of financial stress. But making sure that your partner knows that you’re there for them, and doing things that show love and affection for them is really important.”

This research was conducted before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but its findings are more relevant now than ever. LeBaron had authored a prior study in 2018 focusing on how couples deal with financial stress, but that project had focused entirely on white, middle-to-upper-class couples. This time around, she wanted to focus on couples dealing with greater economic hardships; unmarried, low-income couples expecting their first child.

All of the couples included in the new study had experienced one of three major financial stressors within the past year: an inability to pay rent, eviction, or having their electricity/utilities shut off.

“Financial stress isn’t good for anyone, but for lower-income couples, it can really affect the time and energy and focus they can put on relationships,” LeBaron comments. 

Just like her first study had found, LeBaron noted that the couples who emerged from their financial problems fully committed to each other and on the same page had followed the aforementioned relationship maintenance behaviors. 

It may sound like common sense to say “respect your partner” or “remember to show some affection,” but when bill collectors are calling and the lights have been shut off it’s incredibly easy to forget about these notions. Ironically, it’s during those times when offering a shoulder to cry on or helping hand is most important.

Additionally, both of LeBaron’s studies found that couples tend to maintain higher levels of commitment after receiving financial help from family and friends. Unfortunately, many couples don’t have that luxury. Regarding studied low-income families, the research team also noted that a strong support network, access to health insurance, and having kids with only one partner were all found to help couples stay together during hard times as well.

What works for a middle-class couple experiencing financial trouble may not be as effective for a lower-income family, and vice-versa. That being said, these findings illustrate that some core behaviors can help across the board.

“Financial stressors happen to everyone. They happen more often and to a greater extent to some people than others, but everyone experiences financial stress,” LeBaron concludes. “If they use that stress as a catalyst to make positive changes in the relationship, it can be an opportunity to grow closer together, instead of having that stress tear you apart.”

Whether you’re in a relationship right now or not, we’re all facing the worst economic downturn the country has seen since the Great Depression. During these hard times, the simplest of gestures towards the loved ones in our lives can make all the difference.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues.