During these difficult financial times, many couples, usually without ever noticing it, start dealing with life as individuals. They begin to recede from each other and allow a distance to develop. They stop talking. They find their feelings to be too intense and too difficult to face, so they don’t share them. They don’t want to share that they are scared, so each partner says nothing and goes into a deep and lonely place within. They don’t fight for their relationship. Instead they fight over money and who’s at fault for the situation. They blame each other for not making enough money, for spending too much money, for not saving money, or for not spending enough time doing the things that will bring in more money.
Sadly, this distance is a close step toward a wide gap from which many couples do not recover. For over 22 years, I’ve helped couples turn this around quickly. In my book, In Good Times & Bad: Strengthening Your Relationship When the Going Gets Tough & the Money Gets Tight, (written with my wife) we offer a one week program to turn your family life around to create a warm, loving home. It begins with a pattern of living that successful couples follow to create a deeper love from struggle.
1. Decide to fight for your marriage: Everyone says they want a great relationship but do not necessarily throw their whole selves into it. When I counseled a couple separated due to financial struggle on a recent Oprah episode, the wife shared that this financial struggle was harder than her overcoming her recent battle with cancer. Through counseling, she came to understand that she made a decision to fight for her life in a way that she did not for her marriage. With that knowledge, a different way of live began for her and her husband. Saying firmly to yourself and your partner that we ARE going to get through this and will not allow it to cause our relationship to deteriorate is a crucial step. It keeps you away from negative conversations about the relationship and creates renewed energy to deal with your collective financial problems.
2. Attack the problems, not each other: We only have so much energy. The more we expend it blaming and fighting, the less we have to get our problems solved. Now is the time to have that conversation with your spouse, the one that says let’s stop arguing and let’s start standing up for this couplehood. Not talking is the worst mistake you can make. Force yourselves to go into this with eyes wide open. Look at your whole financial situation and together begin to figure out creative solutions. Divvy up roles, who’ll research this, who will talk to this person who might have some answers or ideas. Be determined to focus on loving each other and knowing that as long as the two of you are in this together, that’s what counts. Everything else comes and goes, but love is the constant we must focus on. In the book we explain how to get this conversation going so that the focus is on getting over negative history and working together for the future.
Once you become a team there’s inspiration for positive changes. We think clearer and find more answers. My father-in-law, a judge for over 30 years, told me how unfortunate it was when people would not show in court during foreclosure proceedings. Even if they didn’t have an attorney, just showing up could have helped and he could’ve given them more time to manage things. When people are so overwhelmed and feeling alone, they’re more likely to take a wait and see attitude, the very opposite of what will help the most. Teamwork is the goal and you may be surprised how much more creative and confident about the future you will fell when love is more prevalent in your life.
3. Give yourself permission to have fun: There’s a tendency to stop having fun during tough financial times. We have this image that we’re supposed to be sad and overworked. If there’s a spare second, do something to make money. Life doesn’t stop when money is tight. At some point, you’ll decide that you have to get back to living, enjoying parts of your day. Why not give yourself that permission today? You and your partner are allowed to have fun and enjoy life. You can even go on a date for little or no money every week. Try this: on your date, don’t talk about money, work or the kids. If you’re like most people, you’re already laughing out loud wondering what you’ll talk about. Get back to loving your time together and creating fun. Don’t wait to live life.
4. Get the children on board: Parents tend to share as little as possible with their kids because they fear worrying them. Unfortunately for kids, lack of information leads to an overactive imagination. When your kids hear comments during arguments like, “You’re spending all our money,” they think, “Oh my gosh, all of our money is going away.” Yes, your children need reassurance but they also desperately need to be a part of this family team. They can handle the truth as long as they know that their parents are on top of the situation and that there will be love in this family regardless of what comes next. You have the chance to send a powerful message to your children that they will draw on for the rest of their lives: as long as we are focused on the love in our family, we get through anything. Again, in our book, we outline scripts on how to talk to different age children so that they can feel in the loop without feeling anxious.
Now more than ever is the time to send your loved ones this message: let’s focus on us, the love we’ve shared, the kids we’ve brought into this world, and how we can get through this together. The honest sharing of thoughts and feelings, no matter how complicated, brings us into the inner sanctum of our psyches. That in itself sends a message of togetherness.
Great Gift Ideas for Kids
1. For little children, get little presents. Very small children are generally delighted with almost any age-appropriate little toy or interesting item that you give them. If the item is wrapped in pretty paper or has a balloon attached, they will be delighted. There’s no risk of an awkward moment in which the children report to their friends that they didn’t get the really expensive doll or whatever. Parents often joke about how they bought expensive gifts for their toddlers and the kids were more interested in the boxes. Although we may have enjoyed big fancy gifts as children, the toys we played with endlessly were small green plastic soldiers and dolls with removable clothing. Spend less money on the little ones and apply the money saved to presents for the older ones.
2. Ask parents who’ve been there and done that. People who have kids older than yours may have ideas about which gifts, in retrospect, were a universal hit. Assuming that your kids don’t have their hearts set on a specific thing, this is a good strategy for success. At one point we had five kids under the age of seven, with the eldest being six (yeah, we’ve heard the jokes) and we wanted to get something that would be fun for the group. A friend had kids who were a few years older, and she noticed that they loved the Fisher Price pirate ship. This was a well-received toy by our kids, an instant hit, and it was enjoyed for more than a decade. We later bought the Fisher Price castle; the princess joined the pirates on their ship, and it was all a lot of fun. Although some more classic toys like Lincoln Logs ended up being turned into weapons and lost, the castle and the pirate ship endured.
3. Pool resources. Relatives who would otherwise send cash will often enjoy the opportunity to participate in buying a more meaningful gift. You can let it be known that shares in little Yaakov’s new video game system are available.
4. Use the Internet. Look on eBay and on overstock sites on the Web. Bartering sites offer chances to trade a marketable service for merchandise. Discounted merchandise is widely available.
5. Take a trip. Visiting a park or going camping by finding amazing rates on the Internet is a great time-off gift. Because we live in Florida, we often went to Disney World on days off. We bought a one-day pass for each of our older kids (babies are admitted free), drove there and back on the same day, and had a memorable time. We brought along our own food and sodas. There are often tourist attractions that can substitute for expensive material things, and time with family in a different setting is very memorable.
6. Consider a pet. If your financial situation and home life are reasonably stable and you have time and patience, a pet can be a sure way of generating excitement. Please be aware that bringing a pet into your home is a huge responsibility, not something to be undertaken impulsively. If you decide to get a pet, shelters are filled with puppies and kittens abandoned during foreclosures and other crises. The adoption fee is often nominal. The animal will have had all of the necessary shots, the implanted identity chip, and other veterinarian services that would cost at least a thousand dollars if you had to take care of them. Hamsters and their tunnel homes are inexpensive and very exciting for children, but be warned: hamsters do have a habit of disappearing from their cages and reappearing at inopportune moments.
7. Give a group present. Purchase something that the entire family can enjoy, like a Ping-Pong table or a new television. However, this option doesn’t rule out little gifts for the kids. Warehouse and dollar stores can be good places to buy some inexpensive, individual toys to satisfy your children’s wishes for some simple little gifts of their own.
8. Have fun! No matter what gifts you give to your children, if there isn’t a joyful spirit attached, you’ve wasted your money. Make your times together about fun and happy moments with your kids, and that will be the memory; a nice gift will just add background color.
Mordechai Neuman is a licensed psychotherapist and rabbi and the author of the acclaimed New York Times bestseller The Truth about Cheating. He is a frequent guest on Oprah and has made many appearances on Today, Good Morning America, Dateline, The View, The Early Show, Talk of the Nation on NPR, NBC Nightly News, and CBS Weekend News. He and his work have also been featured in People, Time, O: The Oprah Magazine, Marie Claire, Redbook, Parents, Parenting, the Washington Post, Newsweek.com, the Chicago Tribune, and the Miami Herald. He is the creator of the Marriage Turnaround Intensive, an all-day counseling program for couples, and maintains a private practice in Miami Beach, Florida. He is also the author of Emotional Infidelity: How to Affair-Proof Your Marriage and 10 Other Secrets to a Great Relationship, Helping Your Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles Way, and How to Make a Miracle.Mordechai Neuman