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  • Recent research suggests that under some circumstances, financial stressors can lead couples to thrive—not just in spite of financial stressors but because of them. Tweet This
  • For all couples experiencing financial stress, it seems that enacting relationship maintenance behaviors makes the difference between relationships being scorched or relationships being transformed.  Tweet This

Although the COVID-19 pandemic may be advancing toward an end, financial stress from the pandemic may not be following a similar pattern. Some relationships are likely still experiencing the results of the economic fallout of the pandemic, even though things seem to be improving in the United States. Couples may be feeling scorched and crushed under the enormous pressure. 

Even though the 22 million Americans that have lost their jobs during the pandemic has descended, 16.9 million Americans (as of the end of April 2021) still are unemployed. Likewise, millions of American households still report not getting enough to eat or not staying up to date on rent payments.  

Luckily, recent research suggests that under some circumstances, financial stressors can lead couples to thrive—not just in spite of financial stressors but because of them. In fact, financial stressors, like those brought about from COVID-19, can be catalysts for relational growth. 

The current economic struggles may lead many to recall the economic struggles of the 2008 recession, the greatest financial crisis here since the Great Depression. A few years ago, Jeffery Dew, Ashley LeBaron, and David Allsop wondered whether financial stress from the 2008 recession benefitted couples in any way. 

Using a nationally-representative sample of 1,362 married couples, they found that the following factors were associated with increased marital commitment because of the Great Recession: religious marital sanctification, relationship maintenance behaviors, social and financial support from family and friends, employment- or housing-related problems, and feelings of economic pressure.

Indeed, both wives’ and husbands’ perceptions that the recession directly stressed their marriage were positively associated with reporting increased relational commitment. In other words, after perceiving the recession as financially stressful, couples not only wanted to continue on in their marriage, but they also sought their partner’s welfare and not just their own. Results from this study suggest that couples may not have experienced an increase in relational commitment without the catalyst of financial stress.

However, financial stressors do not impact all couples equally. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected the financial well-being of Black and Hispanic Americans. Additionally, research denotes that marriage is becoming less common, cohabitation is becoming more accepted, and the divides between social classes are becoming greater. Among low-income, unmarried couples, nonmarital childbearing is also becoming more commonplace. 

For this reason, a group of BYU researchers, led by LeBaron, conducted another study to test whether the factors that helped transform the relationships of middle- to high-income, married couples would differ from those that promote positive growth for low-income, unmarried couples.

Different from the previous research analyzing financial stress from the recession, this study assessed financial stressors, defined as financial events of sufficient magnitude to bring about significant change. Every couple included in this study had experienced at least one of the following in the previous year: inability to pay the full amount of rent or the mortgage, having utilities shut off, and/or eviction. 

Using survey data from 1,396 low-income, mostly unmarried couples, researchers examined how various demands, resources, and perceptions were associated with relationship commitment and coparenting following a financial stressor. Interestingly, this particular study included the first and second authors from the 2008 recession study, so they discussed which factors were context-specific and which were generalizable across the two samples.

For both samples, relationship maintenance behaviors and financial support were associated with positive relational change after a financial stressor. However, all other predictors of positive relational change were context specific. For low-income, unmarried couples, health insurance, a social support network, and a positive relationship outlook were also associated with positive relational change. Additionally, results suggested that coparenting may be a better measure of relational growth following a financial stressor (compared to relationship commitment) for low-income, unmarried couples. For these couples, financial stressors (such as COVID-19) may serve as a catalyst for improved coparenting. 

What can we learn from both studies? First, these studies provide evidence that financial support during times of financial stress is not only a necessity but also a relational necessity. Second, relationship maintenance behaviors are key. These behaviors include respecting a partner, being able to count on a partner, and showing love and affection for a partner. For all couples experiencing financial stress, it seems that enacting these behaviors makes the difference between relationships being scorched and relationships being transformed. 

These important findings show that following financial stress or an economic stressor, relational growth is possible—specifically increased relational commitment and improved coparenting. Indeed, this growth may not have even been possible without the catalyst of financial stress. Through access to financial support and consistent enacting of relationship maintenance behaviors, couples experiencing financial hardship can use their circumstances and the pressure they face to help their relationship flourish.

Matthew Saxey is an incoming M.S. student at BYU’s Marriage, Family, & Human Development Program. Dr. Ashley LeBaron-Black is an Assistant Professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University.