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Debt and relationships

Debt and money troubles are among the biggest causes of relationship stress.

In the short animations that follow, you will hear real couples telling their stories of being in debt, the impact this had on their relationships, and the steps they took to get things back on track.

Debt and money troubles are among the biggest causes of relationship stress. Being in debt can lead to all kinds of related stress, like taking on extra work, spending less, and avoiding socialising until you’re back on top of things. These stresses can get in the way of your everyday life, leading to moodiness, secrecy and arguments.

If you’re worried about debt, watch these stories to see why you should act as soon as possible – not just by taking steps to resolve the debt itself, but by talking to your partner about whatever you’re dealing with.

  • 55% of couples include money worries in top three relationship strains [1]
  • Getting just three months behind on your bills can have a negative impact on your family life [2]
  • Debt is the number one problem area for newly married couples [3]


The stories explore some of the different ways you might find yourselfpeople have found themselves in debt – losing a job, having a baby, borrowing too much, or just having more fun than you can affordgoing off the rails a bit – and why it’s always a good idea to talk to your partner.

If you think your partner is in debt
You may have picked up on clues in their behaviour, or perhaps the credit card statements have been disappearing lately. This article can help you understand what your partner is going through and start a conversation about your concerns.      Learning to recognise the effects of stress   How you react to stress goes some way to determining how stable your relationship is. When stressful events happen, it may be that one of you has to be the strong one, offering support to help the other. This is a recognised way for couples to stay stable in difficult times.Debt is stressful. People in debt often feel like they have lost control; they can feel guilty and embarrassed about having gotten into debt, and worried about how they will get out of it. And, because debt often means having to work more and spend less, that stress can be hard to cope with.If your partner is hiding debt, you may have noticed some of these signs:   Mood swings Personality changes – like a placid person getting angry or an energetic person feeling listless Not seeming like themselves, or being difficult to live with Over or undereating Sleeping too much or too little Arguing more Going out less Worrying about bills Secrecy Deflection Using credit cards more Hiding bills and statements Like some of the couples in our animations, you might have noticed a change in your partner’s behaviour without knowing what’s causing it. In both ‘The tycoon’ and ‘The breadwinner’, we see couples where one partner’s secretive behaviour around debt led the other to suspect them of having an affair.These symptoms are just some of the signs of stress, and money problems are just one possible explanation. Whatever it is, you can be a source of support for your partner. Having the conversation Try to bear in mind the factors that could be getting in the way of your partner talking to you: Pride – they don’t want you to know they’re not managing Shame – they’re worried about what you will think Guilt – they feel like the debt is their fault Fear – they don’t know how you will react to the news You might feel like it’s not your responsibility to start the conversation. You might not want to put your partner on the spot, or you feel that they should come to you. If you’ve decided to give them the initiative, you can still play an active role. Recognise that it won’t be easy for them. Make yourself available and let them know it’s OK to talk about whatever’s worrying them.If you’ve decided to start the conversation yourself, the following tips might help: Set your judgement aside. Try to see things from your partner’s perspective. They may believe they’ve done a good thing by trying not to worry you. Avoid accusations. Rather than saying, “I think you’re hiding something from me”, try saying, “I’m worried something is wrong, and I’m not sure what it is”. Rather than, “You’re always working overtime these days”, try, “We don’t seem to have as much time together as we used to”. Explain things from your own point of view. Talk about how you’ve been feeling, and make it clear that you’d feel better if you were included in whatever is going on. Offer support. Let your partner know you want to help. Pick your moment. It’s often easier to have difficult conversations when you’re not face to face. Try going for a walk in the park where the silences can be less awkward and your body language is less challenging.   Reactions – yours and theirs Be prepared for an emotional reaction. If your partner has been hiding debt from you, they may be feeling guilty, embarrassed, or disempowered at having lost control. When you bring it up, they might get defensive, feeling like they’ve been caught out. That’s OK – you’ve still opened the conversation. It might take your partner some to give you the full story. Remind them that sharing the burden will allow you to offer practical and emotional support.You may have a strong emotional reaction yourself when you find out about your partner’s debts. Like some of the people in our animations, you might feel hurt, angry, or betrayed. You’re allowed this reaction. Give it some time to sink in, and then try to work with your partner to move forward.Moving forwardThe first step is to work on resolving the debt together. If your partner has not contacted a debt advice organisation, you can do this together. Working to resolve the debt can not only ease the financial burden, but also start to lift the pressure, and reduce the conflict.If you’re not involved in the family finances at all, let your partner know you want to be included. Finances affect you too, and it’s important to have an idea of what’s going on. You may have to cut back your spending, but this doesn’t mean you should stop making time for each other. As we heard in ‘The rollercoaster’, it’s important to be able to spend time together as a couple.Some of the couples we spoke to told us about how they had cut their spending: Look for cheaper alternatives to your preferred activities. In ‘The pay cut’, we see a football fan paying for a subscription radio service as a cheaper alternative to going to all the games. Go out but spend less. If you go for a meal, just have one course. Get a bottle of wine or some cans from the shop to take home. Buy and sell DVDs online or in second hand shops. When the weather is nice, take walks and picnics in the park. Look up free activities are in your area – there might be hidden gems to discover on your doorstep. You might need some time to adjust and move forward. You may need to change the way the finances are managed so that there is more transparency. Let your partner know that you need time to adjust emotionally, but that you would like to work with them at resolving the debt.As you work together to make positive changes, you can start to rebuild your trust for your partner again. 
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If you haven't told your partner
Telling your partner you are in debt might feel like the scariest conversation you’ve ever faced, but it’s a positive and important step in your journey to recovering from debt. When you get into debt, the stress can creep into all areas of your life, including your relationship with your partner. You may need to work more and spend less, and this lifestyle change affects both of you. Feelings of guilt, shame and worry are common, and your partner may be affected by changes in your mood and behaviour. If, like the people in our animations, you’ve been hiding your debts, this article will help you to start the conversation with your partner.   Getting into debt Debt can happen after a sudden change in circumstances, or it can sneak up on you. A big event, like losing your job or moving house can change your financial circumstances overnight. Or, you may have been struggling to meet costs for years, spending more than you could afford, and leaning on credit cards to see you through. Factors contributing to debt may include: Losing your job Having a child A change in income, like switching to Jobseekers Allowance or Statutory Maternity Pay Moving house or moving in with your partner Buying a car Going on holiday Personal or business loans Overdrafts and credit cards Payday loans However you got into debt, it can be a shock to discover the full extent of what you owe, and face up to the decisions you’ll need to make as you get back on top of things.   Secrecy If you have a pile of bills and final demands hidden away in a drawer somewhere – or if you’re in the habit of throwing them into the bin unopened– you’re not alone. When we were putting this project together, we spoke with several debt charities. All of them talked about how common it is for people to keep their debts secret from their partners. There are many reasons you might want to keep things secret. In a new relationship, like the one in ‘The rollercoaster’, you want to present your best side. This could mean hiding things about yourself that you think your partner might not like, including debts. As the relationship progresses, you’ll need to have a conversation about your money situation. In ‘The tycoon’, we see someone with sole power over the family finances running up business debts without his partner knowing. It can be hard to admit that you’ve taken financial risks which have had a negative impact on your partner. If you’ve lost your job, like in ‘The breadwinner’, or you’re doing extra hours to cover expenses like in ‘The pay cut’, you might be trying to avoid worrying your partner. Perhaps you’re hoping another job will come along soon, or you’ll find a way to get back on top of things without your partner needing to know you've fallen behind. Whatever the reason for your secrecy, trying to sort things out on your own could make the situation worse. It’s likely that your partner already knows something is wrong and, if you don’t tell them, they may draw their own conclusions. Meanwhile, your debt is not going to disappear just because it’s hidden in a drawer.   Getting ready for the conversation Before you can admit your debt to your partner, you might need to admit it to yourself. Don’t wait for your debt to sort itself out. If you know you’re in trouble, act immediately. Open your post. Contact your creditors. Find out how much debt you’re in and make a repayment plan. You might find it useful to contact a debt advice organisation, either before or after you talk to your partner. Whatever is holding you back – pride, shame, guilt, fear – remember that relationships are built on communication. Trust your partner to accept the full story and support you. Even if the initial reaction is less positive, your partner may have helpful suggestions once they’ve accepted the situation.   Talking to your partner The sooner you can involve your partner, the better. The following checklist will help you prepare for the conversation:  Find out how much debt you are in. Consider your repayment options and have some solutions ready. Think about how you would like to be told if the roles were reversed. Choose your moment. It is sometimes easier to have difficult conversations while taking a walk, or doing a familiar activity like cooking or washing up, rather than being face to face. Be prepared to show your partner your statements if they ask to see them. Don’t leave anything out.  Remember that you’ve had some time to get used to the idea of being in debt and make plans. Your partner might be angry, hurt, and shocked - about the situation, and because you didn’t tell them sooner. Give them time to take it all in and react. If they have questions, answer them honestly. If your partner can see that you’re taking steps to resolve the problem, they may be grateful that you came to them even though it was difficult.   Getting back on track Having established the problem, act on it. If you don’t already have a repayment plan, the conversation with your partner might inspire you to start one. You can contact a debt advice organisation for practical tips. As you take steps to get on top of things financially, you may also need to work on getting your relationship back on track. Your partner might feel betrayed, as we saw in ‘The tycoon’ and ‘The breadwinner’, and it takes time to win back lost trust. Be open with your partner. Include them in your ongoing financial arrangements and be patient if it doesn’t happen as quickly as you want it to. If you’re struggling to move forward, consider getting some additional help from a relationship counsellor.   Moving forward Life is marked out by milestones and transitions – having children, moving house, changing jobs – all of which can be emotionally difficult and financially expensive. Take some time with your partner to look ahead and prepare for future transitions. Identify your risk moments, and talk about how you will support each other. Planning for these moments won’t make them go away completely, but it can help you and your partner face them together, offering mutual support and understanding as you take the next step in your life’s journey.
Article | finance
If you want to talk to someone
The Debt Counsellors Website: thedebtcounsellors.org.ukEmail form: www.thedebtcounsellors.org.uk/debt-helpHelpline: 0300 456 2726 The Debt Counsellors provide free, independent confidential and impartial advice, information and support to people in England and Wales who are experiencing financial difficulty. The helpline is available Monday to Friday (9am to 5pm).   Debt Advice Foundation Email form: www.debtadvicefoundation.org/contact-usHelpline: 0800 043 40 50 Debt Advice Foundation is a charity offering free, confidential support and advice to anyone worried about loans, credit and debt. The advice they provide is impartial and based solely on what is best for you. The helpline is available Monday to Friday (8am to 8pm) and Saturday (9am to 3pm).   Christians Against Poverty (CAP) Website: www.capuk.orgEmail: info@capuk.org Helpline (freephone): 0800 328 0006 Christians Against Poverty (CAP) is a charity providing free, face-to-face support for people with a variety of debts and overdue bills, backed up by professional debt counsellors who negotiate with creditors on your behalf. We work to get you debt free either through repayment or one of the insolvency options, whichever best suits your situation. Each CAP Debt Centre has a team of support staff to help you in the long term. All our services are available to everyone regardless of age, gender, faith or background.   Stepchange Website: www.stepchange.orgHelplines: www.stepchange.org/Contactus.aspx Stepchange offers free and impartial debt advice and practical solutions. They offer to examine your financial position, discuss possible solutions and recommend a course of action. Their free online ‘Debt Remedy’ tool can help you create a budget and get debt advice in 20 minutes.   Money Advice Service Website: http://www.moneyadviceservice.org.ukHelpline: 0800 138 7777 The Money Advice Service helps people manage their money, through a free and impartial advice service. The helpline is available Monday to Friday (8am to 8pm) and Saturday (9am to 1pm).   National Debtline Website: http://www.nationaldebtline.orgHelpline: 0808 808 4000 National Debtline provides free advice and resources to help you deal with your debts. You can access their services over the phone, through www.nationaldebtline.org and via webchat.   Relate Website: www.relate.org.ukHelpline: 0300 100 1234 Relate offer services where you can talk to a relationship counsellor. They strive for a convenient service that works for you, whether it's face-to-face, over the phone, or via live chat.
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