Debt: The Silent Partner in Your Relationship

For couples who seek help for conflicts regarding sex and money, undisclosed debt in a relationship might be the silent partner in the therapy session. I recently had the pleasure to contribute to this article published by Barri Segal on


“Millennials are the most likely debtors

Debra L. Kaplan is an Arizona-based psychotherapist who works with couples on money issues and explores the narrative behind their spending or “debting” habits that they bring with them from early life patterns.

Every generation has a different relationship with money, some of which is informed by family and some of which is informed by peers, according to Kaplan.

Many millennials have grown up in an age of financial expansion and have not experienced recession or economic distress, which might account for their carrying debt, Kaplan said.

“And, if their families are not handling money well, they are not having a healthy model for saving, open communication about money or boundaries around spending,” she said.

Why someone might not stress over debt

Some people come from higher socioeconomic backgrounds and are not caught in a chronic fight-or-flight stress response around paying their bills and managing debt, Faupl said.

If you are making a good salary, you’re part of a high-earning couple or you have other financial assets, you know on some level that you can eventually pay off your credit card debt.

And if you grew up in an upper-middle class environment, you may never have experienced your parents having real struggles with debt and household finances. So you might not associate debt with stress.

“And that’s very different from someone who has limited cash flow and is struggling with the daily stress of trying to make ends meet and manage their debt obligations,” Faupl said.

Long-term debt is rampant among highest-income households

According to the poll, long-term debt is a bigger problem among the highest-income households.

Long-term, unsecured debt among high-income households typically indicates fundamental problems a person or couple has with money management – and that they are seeking a higher standard of living, Faupl noted.

And many people spend more as they earn more.

“Often, people create false narratives in their minds that they will be able to manage their debt because they make a higher salary or salaries. Long-term debt, in many cases, indicates someone is living beyond their means and not addressing it,” Faupl said.

And although long-term debt is a big issue among higher-income households, lower-income households are more likely to carry debt, our poll found.

“Of course it makes sense that the people who are more likely to carry debt have lower incomes,” Gresham said. “They have to use credit cards as emergency money, given the current cost of medical expenses, educational expenses and housing,” she added.

The effects of long-term debt

Faupl said that for some, long-term debt can be extremely stressful – and it can cause a lot of conflict and relationship strain.

Some people shut down and try to hide the debt they have rather than seek help. Others continue with out-of-control spending because they feel hopeless that they can ever change.

“Often, people make poor financial decisions or become paralyzed when they are under long-term financial stress,” Faupl pointed out.

How to address credit card debt

If you’re in a relationship, it’s essential to discuss your spending habits to maintain open communication and decrease any potential relationship friction, Kaplan said.

Secrets about money or debt lead to increased chances for divorce, Kaplan added.

“To begin with, couples must maintain open discussions about money if they wish to grow old together and have enough savings to retire. Research shows time and again that avoiding conversations about spending or debt results in increased chances of relational demise or divorce,” she said.

Gresham said one good way to get out of credit card debt is to sit down each month and write down the amount you owe and the interest rate you’re paying, then compute exactly how much the loan is costing you in dollars. ‘Most consumers do not frame credit card money as a loan … but if they did label it that way, they might begin to view it differently,’ Gresham said.”