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The Behaviors That Can Help Couples Manage Financial Stress

The COVID-19 crisis may affect financial as well as physical health. New research suggests the financial challenges can put a significant strain on romantic relationships.

Nevertheless, some couples may be better equipped to manage that kind of stress than others, according to a study by Ashley LeBaron, a doctoral student in the University of Arizona Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences. Researchers discovered relationships can remain strong and perhaps improve in difficult times if partners respect, support and show each other love and affection.

LeBaron, whose research was conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, has studied how financial stress impacts married and unmarried couples from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Her findings provide insight into what might make some couples more resilient.

In 2018, LeBaron co-authored a paper in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues that focused on married couples affected by financial stress during the 2008 recession. She found that some couples reported that their relationships grew stronger not just in spite of, but because of, the financial challenges they had endured together.

However, most of the couples in that study were white, middle- or upper-class married couples.

In the recent study, LeBaron set out to see if her previous findings would hold true for people for whom financial stress might have higher stakes: unmarried, low-income couples expecting their first child together.

Most of the couples in the new study were low-income and black. All of them had experienced at least one of three financial stressors in the year prior: the inability to pay rent or a mortgage in full, having their utilities shut off or eviction.

“Financial stress isn’t good for anyone, but for lower-income couples, it can really affect the time and energy and focus they can put on relationships,” LeBaron said.

In both of her studies, LeBaron zoomed in on the relationships in which partners remained highly committed to one another after financial hardship.

In both studies, she found that the strongest relationships were those in which partners remembered to practice “relationship maintenance behaviors,” including respecting one another, being there for one another, and showing love and affection for one another.

“A big take-home message is the importance of these relationship maintenance behaviors, especially when you’re experiencing financial stress,” LeBaron said.

“It’s hard to remember to do that when you’re in the middle of financial stress. But making sure that your partner knows that you’re there for them, and doing things that show love and affection for them is really important.”

LeBaron also found that receiving financial support from family and friends was associated with higher levels of commitment for the couples in both of her studies.

In her second study, LeBaron measured the success of the unmarried, low-income, expectant couples not only by how committed they reported being to their relationship, but also by how well they reported co-parenting.

Some additional factors emerged as important for the low-income unmarried couples that LeBaron didn’t see in the married couples. Those factors included having health insurance, having a support network and having children with no more than one partner.

“It can be stressful and financially demanding to have kids with multiple partners,” LeBaron said. She added that health insurance didn’t emerge as a factor, and wasn’t asked about, in the study of married couples.

The study appears in Journal of Family and Economic Issues .

LeBaron’s findings suggest that there may not be a one-size-fits-all approach to maintaining a strong relationship in times of financial stress.

“One of the takeaways for policymakers or therapists is that it really depends on the context of the couple you’re trying to help, because something that works for one couple might not work for the other one,” she said.

Source: University of Arizona/EurekAlert

The Behaviors That Can Help Couples Manage Financial Stress

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2020). The Behaviors That Can Help Couples Manage Financial Stress. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 22 Apr 2020 (Originally: 22 Apr 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 22 Apr 2020
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