Is Your Debt A Relationship Killer?

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

Honesty

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.

Communication

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.

Planning as a Couple

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.

Not Theory, Practice

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.

About the Author

By , on Sep 15, 2010
A. Black writes about graciously building wealth through thrift and putting the stereotypical notion of a "tightwad" on its tush at Modern Tightwad. For frugal tips and money management solutions with a tightwad twist visit her website or subscribe to her feed..

Leave Your Comment (8 Comments)

  1. A.B. says:

    @Kasey: Hilarious! I completely agree, walking into a wedding boutique is the quickest way to drown in debt. I will pay my kids to elope!

  2. KaseyS says:

    What’s worse – telling your girlfriend about your credit card debt or your genital warts?

    I’d say it’s a toss up.

    Actually – for me the debt piled up as soon as I got married. Darn weddings. Here’s some personal finance advice – elope.

  3. A.B. says:

    @Mary: Your story seems to be increasingly common. He obviously did not deserve you and I’m happy to see you’re having the best revenge, a happy life without him!

    @Jenna: I think we’re saying similar things in different ways. I agree, you should most definitely have your act together in as many ways possible (including financial) before starting a relationship. The only thing I would consider is when people are talking about having a quarter of a million dollars of debt that may take over a decade to dig out from, they shouldn’t eliminate the possibility of a relationship. It’s unreasonable to think you can cut yourself off from any human contact that could lead to a relationship, but getting in a relationship shouldn’t be THE goal or priority.

    I strongly believe that many people fight about money superficially, that it disguises deeper relationship issues of dishonesty, fear, poor communication, insecurity and more. Eliminating debt may be a safety measure, but if people are bringing those characteristics into a relationship, their financial statement won’t matter.

  4. Jenna says:

    @A.B. / If you are already in debt I think you should focus on getting out of that before starting a new relationship with someone.

  5. Mary says:

    I married my high school sweetheart and since he was good academically we made a choice to have him pursue high education while I ran the family and business-We took loans for both school and business. When he got out of school with a Phd he told me he wanted a divorce because I was not educated-Left me with debt- I gave him a sweet revenge I got wealthy.

  6. A.B. says:

    @Lucas: Thank you very much! It is refreshing to hear when a couple is so open and honest with one another. A credit report is a great starting point, but when you review it with your mate, it’s important to remember to consider how long ago any mistakes were made. Congratulations on your skeleton-free marriage!

    @Jenna: I absolutely agree that huge debt can kill the possibility of a relationship. I do believe that it should be an internal question prior to the relationship, though. If someone has massive amounts of debt or very poor financial habits, should they be focusing on a relationship or themselves? But that is why I wrote that there should already be a plan for paying off debt prior to the relationship. We do all have a past, and other people may or may not be able to handle it. Some people won’t “take on” a person with kids, either. In any case, they’re risking the loss of a potentially great person.

  7. Jenna says:

    I think having debt can kill the possibility of a relationship before a relationship begins. If you find out someone has huge debt that can bring up some big questions and do harm to a potential relationship. Debt can seem like extra baggage and scare someone off.

  8. Lucas says:

    A very good article. Prior to my wife and I getting married, we agreed to run our credit reports together for a full disclosure of all debts/accounts. It was very uplifting to see that she had a higher credit score then myself and I was “bringing the relationship debt” instead of her (I had student loans and an auto loan). She still ribs me about how she married a debtor, but it gave both of us a piece of mind that financial skeletons were not going to be showing up. We also agreed to merge our finances so full disclosure continued in the relationship (I read somewhere that most divorces are caused by money problems, so it was natural to try and minimize that upfront).

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