4 ways financial stress can affect your relationships (and what to do about it)

Wellness Check

4 ways financial stress can affect your relationships (and what to do about it)

Managing money can be emotional—for everyone. But there are ways to deal.

By Sylvie Tremblay


Although the public health impact of the pandemic in the U.S. is improving, the economic and emotional effects remain.

According to the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, most households lost at least some employment income due to the pandemic, leaving many Americans financially stressed. Even those who've remained employed report financial concerns as their number one stressor, a recent MetLife study reveals.

Relationships have suffered, too. Divorce rates surged in the beginning of the pandemic—and although they've tapered off, experts say that’s driven in part by couples’ financial uncertainty.

The good news is you can learn to better navigate financial stress without it ruining your relationships and emotional health. Here are four symptoms to look out for, plus ideas to help you get back on track with your partner.

 1. You catastrophize arguments

It's no secret that couples disagree about money sometimes. But ongoing money struggles can trigger all-or-nothing thinking, making routine money disagreements feel like a referendum on your relationship. What’s more, chronic stress can put a damper on emotional connection, creating further distance between you and your partner.

“We don’t talk enough about how much emotion there is with money,” says Amalia Sirica, a licensed clinical social worker based in New York. “There’s a lot of shame and fear, which can become a debilitating force [in a relationship].”

That shame can make it feel like your partner doesn’t truly respect you. You might find yourself questioning your partner’s dedication or fidelity after a fight, and feel tempted to check their bank statements or phone to see what they’re really up to.

What to do instead

Have an honest conversation with your mate. Open up about your feelings, and be receptive to your partner’s insight. Also, consider seeking outside support, advises Sirico. “Many couples are tempted to go [to] a financial planner. But a therapist can [also] help make conversations productive."

Another thing that bears reminding: Set aside the stress to bond as a couple with a date night or cozy night in. Shifting the focus to enjoy each other can help you strengthen your partnership.

2. You feel undervalued

You’ve always been generous and thoughtful, but lately, it feels like everyone needs something from you, even though you’ve got a lot on your plate.

It could be that your loved ones are leaning on you more right now—and it could be a sneaky sign of your own financial stress. Money troubles can also affect your self-esteem, where even routine asks can feel like impositions.

What to do instead

Realize you're not alone. “Many of us have struggled with our relationship with money at some point in our lives. Few of us were taught money literacy as children," Sirica says. "Being hard on ourselves about this will only make it more difficult to improve our relationship with money as adults.”

She recommends practicing positive self-talk to help shift your perspective. "When we speak to ourselves with kindness, we are more likely to make lasting change," she says. Focus on the work you've done to boost your financial health (like taking challenges with Upwise!), and look at financial stress as a chance to grow. Also, avoid assigning morality to money matters: Struggling with your finances does not mean you've failed as a person or a partner.

“We don’t talk enough about how much emotion there is with money. There’s a lot of shame and fear, which can become a debilitating force [in a relationship].” — Amalia Sirica

3. You’re more (or less) lenient with your kids

The emotional toll of financial stress doesn’t just impact your bond with your partner; it can also affect your parenting. The reason? Guilt—with a capital G.

"The first thing that comes to mind, as an immigrant woman of color who works with other women of color, is feeling guilty," says Dulce Orozco, a Massachusetts-based licensed mental health counselor. "Guilty about not having the life you want to offer your children, guilty about not being able to help family members like you want to, and guilty about not having financial security."

That guilt can lead to indulging your kids more than usual. You might allow a few extra hours of gaming, for instance, to make up for saying no to a day trip. Or it might swing the other way. If you’re feeling underappreciated, you might start demanding more discipline from your kids and dole out punishment for discretions you would have let slide before.

What to do instead

If you're struggling with a short temper, take a pause when you need to, advises Orozco. "If you have younger children, this may seem almost impossible to do. But even going to the bathroom and putting some water on your face could be all you need to prevent a major blowout," she says.

Once you're calm, take this opportunity to be an emotional role model. "Many parents hide their emotions from their children, and the reality is that kids have all these emotions, too," she says. Teach your children to think of emotions as neutral, not "good" or "bad." Sharing when you're sad or nervous, for instance, encourages your kids to open up when they're struggling, too.

4. You’re taking a back seat at work

You used to jump at the chance to take on new projects. Now, you’re letting your coworkers step up for assignments that speak to your interests. What gives?

It’s a classic sign of the low self-esteem that can often accompany financial stress. "[Financial stress] makes it hard to trust yourself, and even prevents you from pursuing better and more profitable opportunities," Orozco explains. "There is a part of you that wants to rationalize why you don’t deserve better opportunities, or why you don't deserve financial relaxation."

What's more: Employees who don’t feel financially healthy report feeling less productive at work, according to a recent study by MetLife. Money worries can also make you feel less engaged and successful, so you're less likely to put yourself out there.

What to do instead

Push back against the negative thought patterns that accompany low self-esteem. "As simple as it sounds, challenging those thoughts if they arise may be a great start," Orozco says. If you're struggling, think of your loved ones and why they deserve for you to thrive at work. "Many times, it is easier to find that open window of opportunity as parents when we think about our children first."

Your mentors and former and current colleagues can also help. "As awkward as it may feel, asking them when they were impressed by something you did at work can be what you need to hear to remember you've got this," she says.

Seek out support to make managing money feel good

Feel free to take advantage of the mental and financial wellness resources your employer offers, such as discounted expert services, a free crisis hotline, or digital solutions, like the Upwise app. Using Upwise can help you monitor your emotions about money and can help build confidence in your finances by creating good money habits, no matter where you are in your financial journey. “It’s scary to address money stress," Sirico says. "But it can set you free.”

Go to the Upwise app

Want to get a better grip on your spending, saving, and the emotions in between? Download the Upwise app to get started.

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