When your marriage is facing a financial crisis

Conquering Mid-Life Panic

by Rebecca Underwood

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My husband and I are late bloomers. We married when I was 33 and Steve was 10 years older; it was his first marriage and my second. I had almost finished paying off debts left by a spendthrift ex-husband. Steve had managed to live on a modest income, but was still renting an apartment and had not accumulated much savings. In many ways, we were in the same position as twenty-somethings just entering the job market. Unfortunately, we had much less time left to put our lives in order.

When Steve was laid off two weeks before the wedding, we went straight into survival mode. It took my salary and most of our savings to make ends meet until we both found jobs and moved to a city with a lower cost of living. We were finally stable again and I was ready to start working on our long-term financial plan.

Unfortunately, Steve wasn't. He buried himself in work, and put off the financial planning sessions as often as he could. When I pressed the issue, he got defensive and irritable, and the calm discussion I had imagined would disintegrate into an argument. We were getting nowhere, and the frustration on both sides was putting a strain on our marriage.

I was baffled. I knew we had discussed our needs and expectations in detail before we married. We had so much in common! So, why were we having this much trouble making our dreams come true? With a little creative listening and some rare (for me!) patience, I began to really hear what Steve was telling me when we argued. It was subtle, but the message was clear, "It's all so insurmountable, what can we possibly do?" His defensiveness and negative attitude were evidence of his fears. We had waited so long to take charge of our lives and work toward our dreams; Steve couldn't see how we could even begin to make them happen.

I wasn't ready to throw in the towel, though, especially since I finally felt I had some idea of what Steve was thinking. So, through trial and error, during the next year we found some ways to calm both of our fears and begin working together as partners. I'm sure it's different for everyone, but here's what worked for us:

  1. I convinced Steve to "schedule a meeting" with me in a public place. It didn't have to be dinner; a coffee shop or ice cream parlor would do. I felt sure that if we met in a public place, it would be much easier for us to remain calm and polite. The plan worked. We now use this technique for discussing any "hot" topic. Most of us naturally hate to make a scene in front of strangers, so we will sit still longer, keep our voices quieter, and generally behave more rationally in a public place. At home, it's just too easy to be childish when emotions run high.
  2. Once I got him to the public place, we didn't use the first meeting to discuss money. Before we got down to dollars and cents, I wanted to make sure we still had the same dreams and expectations. Imagine my shock when I found out what Steve was thinking after a year of marriage! He had begun to assume I wanted much more expensive, much less attainable things than we had discussed before the wedding. Somehow, over time, he had convinced himself that he needed to provide me with things I didn't even want. His guilt over being laid off, coupled with a spendthrift childhood, made him feel that I deserved "more". What a relief when I began to convince him that he was creating mountains of expectation where they didn't exist!
  3. With fears somewhat tackled, we then began to plan in reverse. Because we had less time than most to accomplish our goals, we needed to establish an end result and then work out the specific steps for getting there in the available time. For starters, we agreed upon a detailed image of our lives in 30 years. It took a little compromise, but it wasn't too difficult to find our common ground. We pictured a house of our own, a child or two to visit from college, a small garden in the back, perhaps a little woodshop for projects, and sufficient income to pay monthly bills without anxiety. After that, we began backing up to plan milestones like purchasing the house, being able to afford a child, etc.
  4. Finally, with a timeline in place, it was much easier to start calculating the financial commitments we would need to make. By that point, Steve was much more comfortable with seeing our future in small increments. Each step was manageable, and naturally led us to the next. We would need to make some sacrifices and stay focused, but our dreams were certainly going to be attainable.

I wish I could say that by now we are sitting on a substantial nest egg and have already bought a home of our own. Neither is true, but we are happily getting closer to our goals. More importantly, we now have the loving partnership we always believed our marriage would be. And together we will continue to work toward the future one step at a time, no matter how long it may have taken us to bloom!

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