Love in the Pandemic: Getting Through Stressful Times with your Partner

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As we head into the corporate holiday to end all corporate holidays, Valentine’s Day, you’re bound to come across article after article on what to buy for your significant other or the best date night spots in your time. Because I deal in personal finance and money psychology, I wanted to offer a different viewpoint of relationships this time of year.

The stats are dire when it comes to love and the pandemic (sorry, hopeless romantics). In a recent Personal Capital survey, 50% of respondents said that the pandemic has made them consider the financial stability of their partner more important than before. A whopping 66% (that’s two in three) of adults 18-34 said that the pandemic had increased financial stress in their partnership –– the largest of any group surveyed.

So how do we celebrate love and still keep our heads above water during tough financial conversations with our partners? I reached out to Katelyn Lover, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, to chat with her about how the pandemic has affected our love lives –– especially when it comes to money.

Q: Can you give us a little psychological primer on what’s happening in our brains right now as a result of the pandemic?

A: This ever-evolving pandemic seems to have an ever-evolving effect on our brains. What started as a flood of novelty memes about toilet paper shortages turned into consuming fear about our health and the health of our loved ones, followed swiftly by social unrest around mask-wearing, coupled with a surge of necessary civil rights movements across the country, now seemingly topped off with vaccine controversy and DIY quarantine rules. Our brains have been put through the wringer these past two years, and the collective brain state seems to now be a sense of fatigue.

We’re tired. We’re worn out on the same arguments, the same frustrations, the same stressors, the same fears. Our brains are fatigued, and it’s increasingly difficult to find any hope or resilience for better days ahead. I see this fatigue in my office with clients on a daily basis.

Q: How has this affected our interpersonal relationships –– especially with our partners?

A: The pandemic effect on our relationships has probably been the hardest grief for me to navigate with my clients thus far. So many people feel distant from family members and former communities that used to feel like home, based on how the pandemic has been addressed (or not addressed). It’s truly heartbreaking to witness. Many people have reported a new (or stronger) sense of social anxiety in large gatherings of people, making reconnection with society feel uneasy.

When it comes to pandemic life with partners, the incoming data seems to indicate that the degree of financial stability in a partnership correlates to the degree the partnership has felt strained in the pandemic. While it’s common knowledge that financial stress equals partnership stress, it would seem that pandemic financial stress equals pandemic partnership stress, too. Those who have lost income report the most increased partnership stress since the pandemic began, followed by those who have gained income since the start of the pandemic. In contrast, those who have had steady income have felt relatively more steady in their partnerships. This suggests that the financial toll the pandemic has had on a person strongly influences how stressful their partnership is feeling these days. And that’s a real stat right there –– I’m not just hunting for a relevant one. Pandemic finances clearly influence pandemic partnerships.

Q: How might this show up in how we handle our finances and financial conversions? 

A: The data described above suggests that the stressors of income change are affecting partnerships in the pandemic. This looks like stressful conversations about budget, attempts at diversifying income, and/or making difficult lifestyle changes even under the best of circumstances. The research is also clear that systems, including human systems, resist change – this is true even with positive change, such as increased income!

I am not surprised to see that there is elevated stress reported even when income has increased with the pandemic because the adjustment of it all is still considered a stressor for human systems. I’ve also done a lot of work with clients around the function of money in their own lives, typically tied to how money was treated in a person’s family of origin (i.e., money as a means to security, money as a means to social status, money as a means to entertainment, etc.).

These baseline functions of money affect our financial choices, particularly in times of stress when emotions run high, leading to partnership conflicts when there are differing functions of money at play. At stressful times such as these, one person may want to throw every spare penny at federal student loan debt while the interest rate is at 0%, while another person may want to spend more than before on groceries for therapeutic gourmet cooking at home or splurge on cute clothes to spruce up their social media content.

Everyone is desperate for some comfort, some stress relief, and we all want to make differing financial decisions in pursuit of that relief – that’s where the partnership clashes can ensue.

Q: Are there tools we can use to communicate better, especially regarding topics like finances that already felt incredibly loaded pre-pandemic?

A: I think it’s important to emphasize the pursuit of stress relief I mentioned previously. We are all wired differently, to the point where one person’s comfort is another person’s stress (comparable to introversion versus extroversion). At the end of the day, we are financially doing whatever we are doing to experience some relief.

Typically, no one is trying to stress each other out on purpose, and it’s more of a misunderstanding than not when financial conflicts arise. That baseline belief about your partner –– truly believing they are wired differently than you rather than inherently wrong –– is key to a productive conversation and problem-solving in financial stress. The goal then becomes compromising to meet somewhere in the middle, where each party is leaning into some mild stress for the others’ benefit. And so, I would first and foremost encourage readers to evaluate their own relationship with money as if it’s been an invisible family member in your life – how do you think about, feel about, and handle money? To what end (what’s the goal)? What feels like a “waste” of money? What feels like “gain”?

Get to know yourself in this area, and then get to know your partner in this area. Create a respectful and compassionate baseline between you two on the subject, and then problem-solve financial stressors as a team rather than opponents.

Q: Anything else you’d like to offer or include?

A: I think it’s important to add a reminder that money is not just a slew of cold numbers with a dollar sign attached – it has significant power, especially in our country. We have experienced its power either through having it, lacking it, gaining it, or losing it in our lives. This is why I like comparing it to a family member rather than a math problem; you have a full-blown relationship with this stuff, and it influences you as such.

This is important to remember in dealing with finances because dealing with money can get just as nuanced as dealing with a family member… and dealing with your partner’s relationship with money can feel just as tricky as dealing with an in-law. At the end of the day, I consider it all to be far more relational than mathematical, and this reframe seems to help my clients find their bearings with their financial behaviors. This, in turn, helps them pursue positive change in those behaviors.

The Bottom Line

Discovering more about your relationship with money alongside your partner takes work. It takes time and commitment.

As you continue to explore both internally and together, I recommend using Personal Capital’s free financial tools as a resource. These free tools allow you to sync all your financial accounts so you get a clear picture of where you stand. I check Personal Capital daily for tracking my net worth and my progress towards goals like retirement, debt payoff, and (yes!) saving that first $100k.

Get Started with Personal Capital’s Free Financial Tools

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