Two people sitting on a park bench

Being in debt can place a huge strain on a relationship.

Having enough money is a really basic need, so when you’re feeling the pressure of debt, it can throw everything else off. It can make you feel scared, upset, stressed and worried about the future. Some people find it can creep into every moment, and make it difficult to enjoy any aspect of their life.

In this kind of environment, staying strong as a couple can become tough. Debt can cause one or both partners to become withdrawn and cold, for others it might lead to repeated arguments. Depending on how the debt was accumulated, it can also create some real issues when it comes to trust.

How does debt become a problem?

People get into debt for a whole variety of reasons.

The most common is a big life change. This could be something positive or something negative — from having a baby or getting married to losing a job or a period of ill health. Big changes in circumstance can cause big changes in your finances and sometimes it can be difficult to adjust.

Another reason is unintentionally making a financial over-commitment — taking out a loan and mortgage that seems manageable at the time, but turns out to be unaffordable in the long-term.

Sometimes, simply not having enough income means you always have a deficit budget — so you need to use your overdraft or loans to get by month to month. 

How can it affect relationships?

It’s not uncommon for the stress of debt to cause couples to turn against each other. You may find yourself blaming your partner for what’s happening — especially if they were directly or indirectly responsible for the debt.

It can be tricky to talk constructively about this topic, because being in debt is so stressful. And it can affect lots of things that might be very important to you. Your family home may be under threat or you may not be able to pay for a sporting activity your child enjoys doing.

Over time, you may find that you’re becoming increasing withdrawn from each other — not wanting to speak because you know it’ll cause arguments. This kind of situation can expose and exacerbate prior negative communication in the relationship, making it even harder to address the debt as a couple.

Debt can also cause some real issues when it comes to trust. Sometimes one person accumulates a debt without the knowledge of their partner. Often though there are signs that someone is having financial difficulties, you might notice they are spending more or less, for example if they start going out less or buying cheaper food. If you think your partner’s spending patterns have changed, take a look at the Money Advice Service’s blog on how to spot if someone is in debt.

Finding out that your partner has run up a debt without telling you can feel like a real betrayal. We usually assume that our partner has our best interests at heart — in fact, it’s an assumption that’s key to the stability of most healthy relationships — so finding out they’ve done something to compromise this can have a very profound, emotional effect.  

If you have a debt that you haven’t told your partner about, although it’s a hard conversation to have, you need to talk to your partner. It’s very difficult to address debt without both partners being involved, as you will need to look at both of your incomes and outgoings. You might like to think about getting some debt advice before you talk to your partner so you can show them you’ve started to look at solutions and options for dealing with the debt.

What can you do to address debt?

The most important to place to start is by taking practical measures to address the debt itself.

It’s usually a good idea to use an outside source of professional help. Any advice should be Financial Services Authority approved. You can use the Money Advice Service’s debt health check to find the help that’s right for you. The advice doesn’t have to be face-to-face. It can also be online or via telephone — use the debt health check to find your free debt advice in your area.

It’s worth bearing in mind that, while it can be scary to start accessing help, it can really improve the situation. Within three months of debt advice, two-thirds of people say they have taken positive actions to repay the debt or have even cleared the debt. People worry about being thought of as reckless or stupid for getting into the debt but usually it’s caused by a change in circumstances rather than someone setting out to spend too much money. Debt advisors will give you objective advice that helps you look at how to move forward – you won’t be blamed for getting yourself into debt.

Try not to jump to conclusions about what will happen. People often assume that they will be taken to court or go bankrupt but this might not apply to your situation, a debt advisor will be able to talk you through all of your options.

Once you have advice, it’s important to take action. Often, people stall at this stage and put off making practical changes. But they usually find they need to come back for advice further down the line anyway — at a point when their finances are in an even worse state.

When it comes to clearing debt, it’s essential to try to be supportive of one another. Having help can make a really big difference when it comes to addressing this kind of problem. Dealing with your money worries as a couple means you have someone to plan with and someone to help you stay positive. While this can be tricky if the debt has caused issues between you, it can be good to try to put your arguments aside for the time being so you can begin to get back on your feet.

What about our relationship?

It’ll be very important to find a way to address any damage to your relationship that the debt might have caused. How much damage this is depends entirely on your circumstances. But even a small amount of pressure can cause difficulties so it’s always worth checking in with one another and talking about how you’re doing.

If you find you’ve fallen into negative communication patterns, it’s worth thinking about how you might begin to talk properly again. You may find our advice on communication tips to try with your partner very useful. These tips will help you think about ways to talk about any issues in your relationship without the discussion turning into an argument.

Sometimes, it’s necessary for one or both partners to acknowledge their responsibility for getting into debt. This can be difficult, but it’s often a crucial part of beginning to rebuild trust again. If one person feels they’ve been let down or betrayed by the other, this will likely remain an issue until it’s directly acknowledged or addressed. This applies even if one person felt they were acting for the right reasons — borrowing so they could afford to pay for things for the children, for instance. It’s usually necessary to listen as much as it is to talk when it comes to this kind of discussion. You need to get a clear idea of how the situation affected each other so you can appreciate one another’s perspective fully.

How can you avoid getting back into debt?

Learning how to manage your finances and preparing for unexpected costs can help you avoid getting into debt again. This can mean finding out about how to budget, save and the kinds of insurance you might need to take out. If you are worried you might be getting back into debt it’s important to remember it’s never too earlier to take steps to deal with debt — look at your finances and get help before you miss a payment.

Getting more help

If you think you may need some help with rebuilding trust then Relationship Counselling can be really useful. People often come to counselling for help with issues surrounding debt, and we can find you a counsellor who is trained to understand and help you discuss this. Your counsellor won’t judge you, tell you what to do or take sides — they’ll simply listen and try to help you to find a way back to working together as a couple.

Our Live Chat service allows you to talk to a counsellor for free online. You may like to use it as a way of trying out counselling and getting a better understanding of the process.