Post-pandemic society has transitioned from worrying primarily about health to struggling to maintain wealth. Soaring prices for gas and groceries have become universal challenges for couples, and a frequent cause of conflict. But not all couples are adversely affected. According to research, some partners are able to tighten their relationships while also tightening their belts. How do they do it? By working together.
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Tamara D. Afifi, et al. (2018), examined the different ways in which couples communicate about financial uncertainty, and the link with mental health, stress, and the possibility of divorce.[i] Her research recognizes that economic uncertainty creates conflict and stress for couples, yet indicates that it can actually strengthen marriages. It depends on the communication patterns of the couples involved.
Afifi, 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 exhibited resilience and growth. The degree to which couples experienced resilience when discussing financial uncertainty and stress were expressed through four communicative pathways: 1) unifying, 2) thriving, 3) pragmatic, and 4) at-risk.
Afifi, et al. note that these four different communicative patterns predicted stress, mental health issues, and potential for divorce. The team found that, overall, couples whose communication pathways were unified/thriving had elevated levels of psychological well-being, less stress and anxiety, and less of what they term “divorce proneness” as compared to couples who were pragmatic or at-risk couples.
How does this work? Afifi, et al. explain that couples who unite weathered and managed the state of financial uncertainty by lifting each other up and communicating as a unified front against the Great Recession. They consistently re-affirmed each other’s family contributions, celebrated their partner as part of the solution, and blamed financial distress on factors external to their relationship. As a result, Afifi, et al. explain that the stress of financial uncertainty brought these couples closer together.
Thriving couples were described as encompassing all of the communication patterns used by unified couples, with the addition of the demonstrated ability to grow from stress and financial uncertainty. Afifi, et al. explain that in addition to using the same communication patterns as unifying couples, thriving couples actually verbalized their personal growth. They used phrases indicating an expanded perspective, demonstrated they learned something positive or new from the Great Recession, or grew personally and relationally from the experience.
Pragmatic couples, in contrast to the other groups, were less emotional in the ways they talked about money. They were more likely to focus on basic, daily, family needs such as gas and groceries. Afifi, et al. note that pragmatic partners were more likely to be objective, and concentrate their focus on discussing the problem itself, without emotional influence.
Afifi, et al. describe the fourth type of couple as “at-risk.” As the name implies, at-risk couples were those who turned on each other when discussing finances, creating an emotional wedge. Rather than facing external forces as a team, like 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 engaging in disaffirmation toward their partners.
Challenges are inevitable; conflict doesn’t have to be the result. For healthy couples, facing tough times as a team builds resilience, respect, and relational stability.