Meet the Risdons: Beth, 47, and Ken, 48, from Longmont, CO. Married 17 years, their relationship went into crisis mode when Ken lost his job for the better part of a year. Here's how they coped.
When Ken Risdon's company downsized in January 2011, his wife, Beth, wasn't all that worried at first. She knew that her husband, an information technology expert for a small investment firm, was good at his job, and she had faith that he'd get another one soon. "He's smart, dependable, easy to get along with," says Beth. "I was sure someone would snap him up. I even thought we'd end up with a nice little chunk of his severance to put into savings."
But in a shaky economy, nothing materialized. As the months passed without an offer and the family made do without the little luxuries they were accustomed to (e.g., dinners out and coffee with friends, new clothes or shoes for Beth and their two children "just because something looked cute"), Beth grew increasingly worried that her salary as a part-time social worker wouldn't cover their expenses. "You don't want to make the kids feel as if we might be out on the street. But I'd wake up at night in a panic, worrying, What if we can't pay our bills? What if we have to sell our house and live with my parents?"
Just as bad, Beth discovered that having Ken at home all day put a strain on their marriage. "I had my routine, part of which involved eating lunch and watching some trashy TV. But Ken was always there, wanting to put on sports. I could feel myself getting annoyed; I craved my space." She tried her best to be supportive - "Whenever I felt myself freaking out, I made a conscious effort to ask him, 'What can I do for you?' That helped take my mind off the worry." But it didn't help matters that the two tended to have different approaches to money. "Ken's more free-spending; I'm more frugal," Beth says. "He'd want to order takeout; I'd say we couldn't, then feel like a killjoy."
Ken knew his wife was inclined to get anxious - after all, he was right there next to her all those nights she lay awake worrying - so he did his best to keep her in the loop: "I'd fill her in on where I'd applied and any interviews I had coming up," he says.
To give them both something positive to focus on, Beth suggested they train for a triathlon together. Ken was all for it, but then Beth noticed the registration fee: $250 per person. "I said, 'Darn! There's no way we can do that,'" she recalls. "But Ken said, 'Well, I'm doing it, even if you're not.' I was taken aback. I told him we absolutely couldn't afford it. He said it would be fine. Eventually, I gave in. But I worried we'd regret it, and I was concerned that he didn't seem worried."
In the end, there were no regrets. "Training took my mind off the job search," says Ken. And as they ran or biked together, the two had a chance to talk. Says Beth: "I could see us getting stronger both physically and emotionally. It felt so satisfying to accomplish something, especially with the constant disappointment on the career front."
But things got stressful again once the race was over. "Whenever a job lead turned into a dead end," Beth says, "I wondered, Is he being too picky? What's he not doing right?" Then, one day, she says, Ken was thinking about turning down some contract work, saying it would interfere with his job hunt. "I was watching our money dwindle away. I felt like telling him, 'Are you crazy?' It took all my self-control, but I managed to bite my tongue. Criticizing would only make him feel worse."
Instead, a few weeks later, she broke down sobbing during a run with a friend. "I'd been holding so much in because I didn't want to burden Ken or my friends. But I realized I needed someone other than my husband to tell me everything was going to be OK."
Soon after that, in November 2011, Ken accepted an offer for an IT job at an energy company. "I'll never forget that," Beth says. "When he came downstairs, I looked at him and knew he'd gotten it. Though the position didn't pay as much as his previous one, they both agreed he should say yes: "It was a huge relief - huge. Even the kids seemed lighter." For Ken, the nearly yearlong ordeal felt like a test of their bond. "We learned so much, including how to stick by each other," he says.
Beth believes their year of uncertainty taught her the value of trust. "So many times, my first impulse was to blame him. But I managed to shut my mouth because I knew he was doing the best he could." She also learned that there were more crucial things than a job. "When I was at my most fearful, I'd ask myself, What's the worst that could happen? We sell our house? And I realized that whatever the outcome, we could handle it. The key thing was that we had each other."
FACT: Couples who fight over finances weekly are 30% more likely to divorce, versus pairs who fight less, says one study. 79% of married couples who separate split for good in the end, another study finds.
How to cope when you're in a money crunch:
1. Don't sweep your cash problems under the rug.
"Talk about money regularly so the topic isn't as charged," says Terri L. Orbuch, Ph.D., author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great.
2. Probe each other's pasts to empathize more easily.
Answer these questions, then have your mate do so: What does money mean to me? How did my parents handle it? What values did they pass on? You'll have fewer conflicts.
3. Forget money, at least once in a while.
"Focusing on mutual interests distracts from money stress," says Jon DiFuria, cofounder of the Money, Meaning & Choices Institute in Kenfield, CA.
- By Ginny Graves
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