Many couples would rather walk over hot coals than sit down and examine their relationship. And when you throw kids into the equation, who has the time?
But the consequences of not regularly investing in a healthy home life could lead to a huge personal and financial deficit down the road.
Tahira Hira, professor of personal finance at Iowa State University and founder of the university’s Financial Counseling Clinic, noted that when couples shift the emphasis away from their relationship and allow it to suffer, they likely see negative effects in their careers and their mental health as well. “There’s no doubt in my mind that they all go hand in hand,” she said.
But with a little effort, couples can stave off problems before things get even remotely close to the point of no return.
1. Focus on life changes. Life events can throw a curve ball at a relationship. And while couples should recognize that such events can be dangerous to relationships, they are also opportunities, according to Brad Klontz, psychologist and associate professor at Kansas State University’s Institute of Personal Financial Planning. “At all these life stages—retirement, the birth of a baby, an empty nest, job loss—the relationship will often go in one direction or the other and become either stronger or weaker,” he said.
Take retirement, for example. “If the wife hasn’t worked, when her husband retires, she’s thinking, ‘I don’t want him around all the time,’” Klontz said. “We get into patterns.”
But expected life changes, including the birth of a baby or empty-nest syndrome, allow couples to do some advance planning to define their new roles and strengthen the relationship, Klontz added. In an empty-nest situation, for example, couples may want to take on new hobbies or reconsider trips they’ve postponed because of the kids.
Working together to craft a plan is the best approach to preserving relationship harmony, he said.
2. Plan for the unexpected. Sometimes, as in the case of sudden job loss, you can’t plan for what comes your way. Unexpected events can throw relationships off-kilter, Klontz said, so he suggests developing an emergency response plan to help get things back on track.
The goal of the emergency response plan is to outline a method for how the couple will regroup if life’s plans are unexpectedly derailed.
“My wife and I have one of these,” Klontz said. “If one of us decides for any reason that things aren’t going well, we will get third-party help, whether it be a financial planner or a marriage counselor.”
Just knowing there’s an emergency plan in place keeps Klontz conscious of maintaining a harmonious relationship, he said. “As a psychologist, I definitely don’t want to sit through marriage counseling with another psychologist, so it serves as motivation in a way for me to pay attention. The most terrifying thing for a man to hear is, ‘Honey, we need to talk,’ so I try to solve problems quickly,” he added. “I call it relationship insurance.”
3. Learn to work out conflicts. The most cost-effective way to solve relationship problems is to learn how to communicate, said Patty Howell, president of Healthy Relationships California. “Prevention is the key, but people don’t know how to get their needs met in a relationship.”
Couples learn unsuccessful relationship habits from their parents or from television, Howell said, leaving them clueless as to how to handle confrontation. “Whether it’s colleagues, kids or your spouse, you just bump into each other,” she said.
Howell said it all comes down to effective communication without confrontation. “People need to learn new skills about how to confront each other without placing blame.”
The other problem Howell said she sees is that some people let issues go until they build up, leading to a big blowup over something the other person may view as relatively minor. In that situation, you’re creating confrontation rather than cooperation, she added. Better to address issues as they come up, even if they seem insignificant.