On September 3, 2010, the New York Times ran an interesting article entitled ‘How Debt Can Destroy a Budding Relationship.’ Granted, I don’t think in previous history we were looking at individuals bringing a quarter of a million dollars in debt into a relationship, but it begs the question, is debt killing love? At the risk of sounding trite, debt does not kill relationships, only people can. They do so through dishonesty, lack of communication, and poor planning.
Photo by Ed Yourdon via Flickr
One of the foundations of a stable relationship is honesty. You cannot hope to maintain a long term relationship if you cannot be honest with yourself, let alone your partner.
One of the articles interviewees, Ms. Allison Brooke Eastman had her fiancé break off their engagement within three days of both of them discovering how much debt she had. She had already copped to $100,000, but really wasn’t aware of her complete situation. When it turned out she in fact had $170,000, he accused her of lying; she was lying to herself, to him, and to the world.
This is certainly not to say that Ms. Eastman was in any way a bad person. We have all at one time or another bit off more than we can chew and may not have been able to admit it to ourselves. However, it is indicative that she was entering a partnership she was unprepared for; that was unfair to both herself and her future mate.
That being said, her fiancé was not prepared to be honest in his vows. They don’t say “for richer or poorer” just for the fun of it. What if, the day after the wedding, she was in a major car accident that resulted in $70,000 of medical debt? Would he be more understanding if it was medical debt, credit card debt, mortgage debt, or student loans? Nothing will destroy a marriage faster than dishonesty from any party.
At some point you have an obligation to disclosure and nothing less than complete open communication will do. Another couple listed in the article is fully aware that she (Ms. Tidwell) will be entering their relationship with nearly a quarter million dollars in debt. The best part is, he already knows. He knows how much debt she has, why she has it, and he is willing to support her.
It’s important to communicate your debt without dropping it like an atom bomb. For instance, when it comes to school loans, you can say, “I have almost a hundred grand in debt” or you can say, “When I was in school I incurred student loans in the amount of $14,000 a year for four years, plus an additional $6,000 each year in private loans for textbooks and living expenses.” After that soaks in, you say, “That created a total amount of $80,000 in student loans that I am in the process of paying off.” And you better be trying to pay them off. Hopefully, you already have a plan for paying off whatever debt you may have which you should communicate to your partner. Next comes an important acknowledgement.
You may have been planning (or not) on paying off your debt in a certain way, but you need to acknowledge your growing partnership. If you enter into a marriage the right way, it can be a foundation of mutual support. You must acknowledge that paying off your debt is a goal that will take sacrifice, and your partner will have goals that take sacrifice as well. You must come to the table with your plan and ask what adjustments you should make together so that all of your goals and challenges may one day be met. If you plan as a couple, you can progress as a couple.
Also, don’t be rigid in how you expect your life to occur. Sheila G. Riesel, a matrimonial lawyer quoted in the NY Times article said couples “ought to consider potential extreme circumstances as well.” For example, Ms. Tidwell is determined to work full-time after having children. What if she is unable afterwards due to medical reasons? What if, as Ms. Riesel brought out, triplets enter the picture? What if she simply changes her mind? Will their plan for eliminating debt change in those scenarios? Planning together can help your relationship grow in a beautiful way.
Before my husband and I got married, he had never had a loan or credit for anything. I had an auto loan, a credit card in default, and a student loan. When he asked me if I had debt, I told him the debt that I had, giving approximate numbers. I was honest that I could find out the exact numbers, but since I wasn’t completely proud of the way I’d handled my finances, I didn’t have them on hand. I also used that moment to make a commitment to him to handle our finances better. I told him that I’d spent a couple years learning what to do wrong, and I could use that to help us have a strong financial future. A good person won’t persecute you for your past, but they will require you to do better in the future.
Five years later, we do still have debt. Some has been paid off, while some has been incurred. At any time, if he needs the numbers, they are available on my laptop or on our desk. He knows we are paying things off, but because of the way I have handled our finances, he trusts me implicitly. It’s a heavy responsibility but one I am honored to have. We still discuss major purchases and major financial plans. We both have excellent credit, but more importantly, we have a happy marriage. It had nothing to do with debt; it had to do with honesty, communication, and planning together.