In uncertain economic times, bank accounts aren't the only things that suffer. "Many of you are at home right now terrified about your financial future. Whether there's been a job loss or not, anxiety is sky high for so many people," Oprah says. "The stress of it all is taking a really huge toll on people's marriages."
Marriage counselor M. Gary Neuman says when people start getting anxious, problem-solving skills are the first things to go. "Panic is the biggest obstacle to creativity, and now is the time that people need to look at everything creatively," he says. "When people panic, they become paralyzed and they don't make decisions—and then decisions are made for them."
Amy and Timothy have been happily married for eight years, but when the recession hit, their relationship took a turn for the worse. Timothy lost his job, and they are in about $170,000 of debt. Their house, which they bought for $360,000, is now worth only $240,000. After four years in that home, they are losing it to foreclosure. "It was either feed our daughter or make house payments, and we had to make that choice, unfortunately," Timothy says.
Making the decision to skip house payments was the beginning of a downhill spiral, Timothy says. "That was when I knew my marriage was maybe going to be hanging by a thread," he says. "There's the potential to lose the marriage [and] my child."
Six months ago, Amy moved in with her parents and brought her daughter, Ella, with her. "I really had to choose between taking care of my daughter and living with my husband," she says. "We can't afford to stay together, and he's not welcome to live at my parents' house because he doesn't have a job and they find that disrespectful."
Amy says she stopped wearing her wedding ring when she moved out of the house. "I blame him," she says. "As my husband, he's supposed to be able to take care of a family."
To afford the rental house he's living in, Timothy has to sell his appliances. "This is not at all what I had planned for our life," he says. "Does this feel like home? No. It feels like a place to keep out the weather and the bugs."
The combination of separation and financial strain has taken a real toll on both Timothy and Amy. "There's shame, there's guilt, there's embarrassment. It's a feeling of failure in every area, and there's no end in sight," Amy says. "There's a definite chance I could walk away from this marriage."
Just hours before the bank took their home, Amy and Timothy sat down with Gary to try to put the pieces of their marriage back together. Timothy says one of the contributing factors of the deterioration has been a lack of communication. "I was really getting frustrated with the job hunt [and] our finances. Everything in my life seemed to just be slipping away from me," he says. "I started to get to a point where rather than talk about the emotion, I was projecting it onto her."
Timothy says if he could do it all over again, he would express his fear to his wife. "[I would say,] 'I'm absolutely 100 percent scared for what the future holds.'"
Amy admits she shares some blame in their problems. "I haven't found time or energy to fight for the marriage yet," she says. "It hasn't been a priority."
While Amy says it's important to show Ella that her parents love each other, she wishes Timothy would take the reins. "I would always rather be in the passenger seat," she says. "That's why I picked somebody who's outgoing and loud and gregarious."
Gary says Amy needs to picture explaining to Ella in 15 years that she left Timothy because he didn't make money. "I'm not okay with that," she says.
The problem, Amy says, is that marriage has never seemed like something to fight for. She says that even cancer—she had melanoma three years ago—seemed easy compared to this. "This is much scarier," she says.
Gary says cancer felt easier because Amy made the decision to survive from the get-go. "You both have to decide whether you're going to fight for [your marriage]," he says.
The first step in the marriage repair process is rewriting vows, Gary says. "Remember, we get married for a lot of different reasons, not just for money or for looks. It's about an entire relationship," he says. "It's good to come back and remind each other why we fell in love."
Timothy and Amy have committed to start looking at their relationship differently. To get the healing started, they each rewrote their vows. "I will prioritize my marriage in the same way that I would protect our daughter or fight cancer. I will join Timothy in the driver's seat," Amy writes. "The word 'divorce' is not in our vocabulary."
Timothy says he vows to communicate better. "I vow to talk about my feelings as far as if I'm scared, I'm nervous [or] I'm anxious, and I will not make you feel those emotions," he writes.
Corretta and Sean, a couple from California, are also making some unexpected financial adjustments. Corretta, the former breadwinner, is now at home with the kids after losing her six-figure income.
Before getting laid off, Corretta says her marriage was strong. "It seems that once I was laid off and I wasn't able to find another job, the communication [in] our marriage went out the door," she says. "We started bickering and arguing, and it seemed like a real resentment started setting in."
Corretta says she always expected Sean to be her biggest support system and says the changes in her marriage have taken her by surprise. "I was under the impression that money problems would bring us together—not pull us apart, which it's been doing," she says. "When money was good, it seemed like we were a great team and we could conquer anything together."
Although she's lost her job and her income, Corretta says she's facing a more personal deficit—a loss of self-confidence. "After I was laid off, we weren't able to meet all of our financial obligations on time, [and] after a while and it affected my credit rating," she says. Because of her low credit rating, Corretta says she was passed over for some good jobs.
Gary says Corretta—and many Americans in her situation—are in a state of mourning. "You've got to sometimes give yourself a break. You have to remember that you are much more than your six figures," he says. "You are much more to the world and to your spouse than that. And this is a time when the two of you have to find a way to appreciate each other."
Sean says that when he fell in love with Corretta, he didn't know anything about her salary. "I loved her energy. I loved her charisma. I loved her positivity," he says. "She's very beautiful, and I didn't see anything that had to do with any money."
Sean says he thinks Corretta has sunk into a depression since losing her job and says he's trying harder than ever to reestablish their old teamwork. "I try to reassure her, let her know that everything's all right," he says.
Sean says the couple has also been going to church. "Trying to get closer to God," he says. "I try to let her know that even though times are hard, it's hard for everybody right now. It's not just us. ... We just need to work together and try to stay positive."
Despite Sean's best efforts, Corretta says she needs him to understand that she's having a hard time adjusting to life at home. "I just told him last night. I was laying there and I said, 'Do you realize having a job right now would be easier for me every day than what is required of me here with our 3-year-old and just all of the responsibility of the house?'" she says. "I just need him to understand it is a very drastic, big difference for me from being a corporate executive."
The adjustment may not be easy, Gary says, but it could be one of the best things to happen to her family. "This will hopefully be one of those spiritual changing moments for you," he says. "You're going to have to realize that, gosh, maybe this is how the universe has come to you, that your child is going to grow with her mother there showing her how to live life."
To start appreciating her new situation, Gary says Corretta should take the time to enjoy the simple tasks with her daughter, like folding laundry or baking cookies. "You are not a housekeeper. You are taking care of your home," he says. "Good mothers are highly intelligent people. They read their children's feelings. They take the time to spend with them."
Nor does Corretta have to leave her professional skills behind. "Maybe you need to come through this and write a book about how you take all that executive experience and translate it to being the best mom in the world for your kid," he says. "Make now work."
Is your marriage starting to buckle under the weight of your financial troubles? Use this time to build the strongest foundation possible.