Chris Sherwood, chief executive of Relate, explains what the charity has learned from its recent research into debt and relationships. Views do not necessarily reflect those of MoneySavingExpert.com.
Relate is the UK's leading relationships support charity – next year we'll have been providing counselling and relationship support services to people for 80 years. We know first-hand from the counselling room how debt, money worries and finances can put strain on relationships.
But now we have the hard evidence on how relationships and finances can affect each other. Relate conducted a major research project looking into these links, generously sponsored by Provident Financial, and kindly supported by partners in the debt advice sector. We looked at how debt problems can affect our relationships – finding that debt problems increase levels of stress, conflict, mistrust and blame, and relationship breakdown.
And we looked at the link from the other side, at how relationships can affect our finances – finding relationship breakdown is a significant cause of debt problems in the first place, for example, but also that relationships can have a big effect on how we manage our finances and debts within relationships.
For example, are we able to communicate openly and effectively with our partner about debt and our financial situation? Or do we find ourselves descending into rows every time money comes up, or hide debts from each other? Do we have similar or clashing emotional and psychological approaches towards finances, the meanings debt and money have for us, and how we want to manage finances?
Do we make financial decisions together or not?
These fundamental relationship issues can have a major influence on how we manage our debts and money. Relationship and financial difficulties can form a damaging spiral – where each problem can feed off and worsen the other.
One in seven have hidden debt from their partner
Our research found that when one person in a couple or family gets into debt problems and keeps this debt secret, this can be particularly damaging for their relationship – in fact, debt advisers and relationship counsellors told us how the effect can be very similar to an affair – but it can also make dealing with the debt even more difficult.
We were surprised to discover that one in seven people in Britain have hidden debt from their partner – and half of these are still hiding it.
The impact of this can be huge. One Relate user we surveyed in the research put it like this: "My partner withholds information about debt and sticks his head in the sand so even if I talk to him I have no idea whether he is getting into debt again, as it is outside of my control. We are considering couples' counselling due to breakdown in trust following his debts and lies."
Clearly, talking about debt with our partners and families isn't something we're all very good at. Indeed, we found many people want more support to help them to have these difficult conversations – a third of people said that support to talk to partners and family members would benefit them, and over 40% of heavily indebted people said this would benefit them.
We need to talk to our partners
So what can we do to reduce the damaging impact of debt on relationships and strengthen our relationships to achieve better financial management?
Talking about debt and money might not be easy, but it's important. We need to talk to our partners about our attitudes towards money and debt and try to understand where each other is coming from.
If one is a spender and the other a saver, our differences may be a source of tension, but recognising this and working together to navigate these differences will be better than burying our heads in the sand. Putting together a plan for how we manage money and/or debt together and working out a monthly budget is a good idea – particularly when finances are tight, to help us feel in control again and like we're working as a team.
And if we get into difficulty, it's important to seek help. Charities such as Citizens Advice, National Debtline, StepChange and Christians Against Poverty can help with debt problems, and Relate can help with relationship difficulties.
Our report In too deep: An investigation into debt and relationships also makes a number of recommendations to policymakers, creditors, and to the financial and relationship support sectors. Relate is seeking to work with partners in the money advice sector, with government and with creditors to develop more joined-up support for people to manage their finances and relationships.
Money is one of the things we argue about most. If we can improve our communication over it, understand where each other is coming from in relation to our approaches to money and work together, we're likely to enjoy healthier relationships, and healthier financial management too.