5 Ways to Protect Your Relationship During a Recession, According to a Financial Therapist

Money problems are not sexy. Studies show that financial concern is one of the top reasons for conflict among couples because it's stressful. And in a recent poll by the American Psychological Association, money stress registered at the highest recorded level since 2015 due to a historic inflation spike and overall growing financial strain. As scary economics reports roll in and we face the potential reality of another recession, now is a great time to acknowledge the anxiety head-on with your partner.

"This may be the relationship's first recession," says Amanda Clayman, financial wellness coach and therapist. But "recessions aren't a unicorn event — these things happen," Clayman adds. That being said, if this is a new scenario for you or your partner, "I think it's really helpful for couples if they both come in with a perspective of, 'this is new territory for us.' By nature of it being a kind of new experience, our anxiety level is higher because that's our body's cue to scan and be vigilant and to be out looking for information," Clayman tells POPSUGAR.

But in that sense of experimentation, it's important to give ourselves and our partner some grace. Most likely, these financial discussions and planning sessions are not going to feel like a home run but will get easier and feel more natural with practice. "There is a lot of churn as we develop all of these new behaviors and share these deep vulnerabilities with another person," she says. "That's intimacy." POPSUGAR spoke with Clayman about the impact financial stress can have on a relationship — particularly during a recession — and how to better prepare for the future.

Acknowledge Emotions That Come Up

In the early stages of a relationship, money talks aren't usually a priority. Typically, the focus is on marriage, children, or long-term career goals. When you talk about finances for the first or second or third time, understand it may trigger emotions from the past. Research shows we develop a lot of "beliefs" around money from our parents as we grow up — like, "There will never be enough money" — so don't be surprised if it's challenging at first to get on the same page as your partner. Start with curiosity: What is your partner's fear about money? What are their goals? Acknowledge the negative connotations and fears that come up around the topic — and that sometimes expressing these emotions "often feels so crappy along the way," Clayman says. Remember that as you're going through the steps of developing intimacy around financial discussions, that "it is not the final product or the only incarnation of the kind of relationship that you're building." It's a work in progress.

Ground Yourself in the Same Reality

Clayman's husband grew up in New York City, attended private school, and was surrounded by affluence. Comparatively, she grew up in the Midwest and there were some "very lean and unstable years" in her childhood. Naturally, this would lead to differing perspectives on money. "As a result, I come home from the grocery store and I'm like, 'Look at me buying cherries in January. I am the richest person in the world,'" to her husband's amusement. "But try to get that man on a budget, it's a different story. He drives me crazy, and vice versa." Coming from different backgrounds, they've learned over time that they — and everyone else — "need to be grounded in the same reality. We need to look at the same numbers." Meaning, numbers are black and white, but our perspectives that come with finances are a little more subjective. One person may think $100 is a lot of money, while the other thinks of it as chump change. "It exposes us to a lot of vulnerability. For somebody to say 'How much does that cost?' or 'What are you spending on this?' or 'Is that all you're earning?' is incredibly challenging," Clayman says. But once you're aligned on shared financial goals, it gives a base to work from in the future.

Understand Each Other's Values

Clayman recommends that couples get very specific in terms of their values and then what the concrete ask is attached to that value. An example scenario is if stability is a core value, you might say: "Stability is really important to me. I can't go out and do anything unless I know that I am safe. I don't feel like we're saving enough, so I would like us to increase our savings by $200 a month." Whatever the goal is, Clayman says to avoid vague phrases like "we need to save more" or "we need to stop wasting money on going out" because that never translates into action.

"Come back to, 'this is why it's important to me, this is what I want to translate that into,' because that we can negotiate," she says. "We can co-give with our partner instead of what we think of as compromising. Think of it as, what's my contribution to the whole?"

Avoid Making Assumptions, and Allow Room For Growth

Clayman wants everyone to let go of the assumption that we should be automatically good with money — it's not a moral flaw. But if one partner is better about financial management than the other, it can cause some anxiety. Clayman recommends addressing those fears out loud.

Examples of what you might say:

  • "I am having a scary thought that my partner is spending all of this money, and it's freaking me out."
  • "I am having a scary thought that this person's spending means that they don't care about what's important to me."
  • "I am having a scary thought that I'm going to have to do something about this in the relationship, and I don't want to. I'm also worried that if I don't do that, this person's going to spend all of my money and I'm going to be left with nothing."

Label it as a thought, as opposed to a clear-cut description of what's actually happening. "It gives us a little perspective on the internal piece of it, such that we can then reality test it and say, 'What is the evidence for it?'" What's the evidence that they don't care about how I feel? What's the evidence that this is going to impoverish us if it continues? "We use the feeling as the starting point to get more information," Clayman says, and then we begin to process those feelings and talk them out with our partner.

Dedicate Money and Nonmoney Time as a Couple

Give yourself space to still enjoy the relationship outside of tough financial talks — aka, carve out money time and nonmoney time. "We need to have places that are a kind of a refuge from some of these stressors where we can come back and make sure that we still feel very connected with each other," Clayman says. "That we realize that who we are when we're paying attention to money, when all of the feelings are coming up and we're sort of trying to manage an intense experience, that there's a place that we come back to and remind ourselves, 'You are my soft place to fall. I don't have to have it all together here.'"

The goal is financial wellness. "It's not about making the most amount of money, or what is the most frugal choice that you can make all the time? Heck no," Clayman says. "If you're this brave spirit and you want to have a giant adventure with this one precious life that you have," then it's about figuring out how money will support you in your vision of the way you want to live life. And then creating boundaries around it, she says.

Start with you as an individual, and then come together as a couple and say, what does money need to be in your shared life? "As opposed to starting from the money and then thinking if you just have the money, you'll be happy."