Communicating About Debt

wallet with credit and debit cards
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Couples should have a financial strategy in place to avoid the use of debt. Don't let debt become a cause of discontent in your marriage.

As a young businessman drove home from the jewelry store shortly before Christmas, he was beside himself with excitement. It had been a tough year at his business, so he’d had to borrow to purchase the diamond necklace. But he knew the thrill on his wife’s face would be worth the cost. Once home, he carefully placed the box under the Christmas tree. He watched with delight as his wife looked at the box and shook it, wondering what it might be.

Finally the big day arrived! Christmas morning, as the wife opened the box, the look on her face changed from curiosity … to shock. She began to cry, because she knew he had taken on more debt to obtain the necklace.

Surprised at her response? You shouldn’t be. I’ve counseled with hundreds of couples over the years and have noted specific differences in the ways men and women react to debt. In this section, we’ll compare those responses. I realize that the following generalizations may not apply to every couple; some husbands are much more sensitive about taking on debt than their wives. However, overall I have found some fairly standard reactions to debt among men and women.

A husband’s response

Let’s begin by examining the typical husband’s response. First, the husband will tend to become a workaholic in order to handle the debt. Even though more work and longer hours are not the answer, they are typically the husband’s first response when faced with debt. But it’s a response that the wife normally does not want. She wants him to be home more. And thus conflict builds.

Second, the husband will stop telling his wife what he is doing regarding debt. He won’t even let her know when he takes on more debt or why. Many times as I work through the assets and liabilities with a couple, the wife will exclaim, “I didn’t know we owed that!” The husband stops communicating with his wife regarding debt because he is concerned about her reaction. He knows her response will normally be negative. So rather than try to explain why, he says nothing.

Third, the husband may exhibit ups and downs in his spiritual life. I’ve noticed in counseling with couples that if things are going well (income, job, promotions), then debt is not a big issue and their spiritual life is strong. However, if there is a glitch in their income or the debt load becomes too great, then the couple tends to go into a spiritual tailspin. This is to be expected, because they must work harder and therefore have less time to spend with God. They can’t get ahead because they must put all their energy into paying debt, which adds to their stress. This should not be surprising because when we’re in debt we feel anxious that our income not go down. Proverbs 22:7 is true — “the borrower is servant to the lender.” Therefore, debt can put the spiritual leader on a spiritual roller coaster.

A fourth way the husband may respond to debt is to blame his wife and take no personal responsibility for it. He concludes that he has been driven to assume an inordinate amount of debt in order to satisfy his wife’s desires for “things.” As a result, he may feel little personal responsibility and even develop an attitude of apathy toward paying back the debt. He takes on more debt yet works less. Eventually he doesn’t care if the debt is even paid back. His wife’s security is of very little concern to him.

The wife should understand these responses of the husband to debt. Likewise, the husband should expect the following responses from his wife.

A wife’s response

Debt causes most wives to become very anxious. This is because she has a basic God-given need for security. Because of the woman’s basic nurturing instincts, she desires to have a secure environment. Debt threatens this.

I’ve known of husbands who have suggested to their wives that they go into debt to finance a business opportunity, an investment, or the purchase of a new “toy.” The husband is generally surprised by his wife’s strong response. Her anxiety and fears may surface with a simple comment that includes the word debt.

She may say, “Why do we need the debt? What if our income goes down? What about our home?” Often a wife’s response to debt is much different than her husband’s. What a husband may see as a wise business move, the wife may see as a threat to her security.

At this point — just before the blowup or the tears, depending on the wife’s modus operandi — it is the husband’s responsibility to help his wife understand his reasoning. If she is not comfortable, then perhaps the husband should not take out the debt. After all, is money more important than your marriage?

Out of anxiety comes the wife’s second response: nagging. she may continually push her husband on the debt issue. “Why don’t you reduce the debt? Why do we have so much debt?” It’s my observation, however, that this nagging is simply a plea for communication, a request by the wife for her husband to let her in on what he is doing. She needs to hear his thinking on debt — and how it will be paid for.

A third response of the wife to debt is apathy. She may feel there is no reason for her to watch what she spends if he is going into large amounts of debt. What does her little bit for clothes really matter if the husband is going to spend huge amounts on houses, boats, and other “investments”? Basically, this attitude results if the husband does not help the wife understand why and where debt fits into the overall provision plan.

The final response the wife may have to debt is disrespect for the husband. She does not feel he really cares about her, since he is willing to threaten her basic security by taking on debt. So she begins to belittle him and tear him down. If he really cared for her, she concludes, he wouldn’t take on so much debt.

A couple’s response

Obviously, debt exists in most marriages. Therefore, husbands and wives must prepare for it. The husband’s basic drive to provide may conflict with the wife’s basic need for security. To avoid problems in marriage caused by debt, each partner should strive to communicate with the other — before debt is assumed. Husbands especially should make sure their wives understand why a debt is needed and how it will be covered. Couples should have a financial strategy in place to avoid the use of debt. Don’t let debt become a cause of discontent in your marriage.

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