Even under pre-pandemic economic and employment conditions, sharing finances with a partner can be complicated and fraught with tricky power dynamics. After all, it's rare for two people sharing a life to bring home the exact pay, and because money is interwoven with feelings of self-worth and fulfillment, says financial therapist Amanda Clayman, LCSW, it's easy to fall into the trap of feeling like you're not contributing equal value to your relationship if you're not contributing equal funds. "Lots of people's self-esteem is tied into how much money they make, so it's important to remember that money isn't everything, but people have this emotional relationship to having it," adds Susan Trombetti, relationship expert and CEO of Exclusive Matchmaking.
Successfully sharing finances requires regular communication, shared future goals, and real teamwork, but when best-laid plans fall through and someone's income suddenly changes, stress brews. And with so much being uncertain right now, that stress is more likely to bubble over.
According to Stanford University research, losing your job can trigger psychological effects like anxiety, anger, sadness, fatigue, as well as nausea, muscle pain, fatigue, headaches, and—most notably linked to this moment, says mental health counselor Amy Cirbus, PhD, head of clinical content at Talkspace—shame. "We often link money to self-worth as a sign of success or achievement. The more money we have, the more successful we must be in our lives. Culturally we compare what we ‘have’ rather than who we are," she says. That's why when it comes to partnerships, feelings of guilt are completely expected in times like this: You had an idea of yourself as someone who contributes a certain financial amount to the relationship—and that has temporarily been taken away by the world we're living in right now.
Still: The term "partner" implies that you have equal standing in your relationship, and the experts say that can absolutely remain the case even if one person temporarily can't contribute in the exact same way they did before COVID-19.
Step 1: Triage your own feelings of guilt and shame
If you get the call from your company that you're getting let go or are subject to decreased pay or hours, Clayman says that you owe it to yourself to emotionally grieve first—even before you've told your partner. Of course, this can be tough when alone time is a likely a scarce resource for you, but if you can take a walk or find a private room in your home, give that time to yourself, and give it freely.
"I think we need to, first of all, find space within," says Clayman, who's also Prudential’s financial wellness advocate. So take a few hours to process the pain you're feeling—and identify what specific concerns are cropping up for you the most. Is it a loss of self-worth? A genuine concern that your family won't be able to make ends meet? Or something else?
Once you've let yourself begin to process your grief, Dr. Cirbus recommends letting yourself see any possible upsides that might come from turning the page on this particular chapter of your career. "Understand that the value you have as an individual is a work in progress. There is certainly a real factor of having anxiety about paying bills and having a roof over your head; yet, for most of us fortunate enough to have food and shelter security, there is a lot of 'extra' that we’ve thought we needed that doesn’t truly add value to our lives," she says. "Shifting your mind-set is also important. When we focus on what we don't have because of a loss of income, we tend to see lack and loss. When we're able to see what we do have and how we can thrive on less, it's empowering."
Simply remembering that a transition in your mind-set is possible can give you some peace of mind, even if it doesn't happen quickly. And, even better, while you might be afraid for very practical reasons, you could use a taste of that fresh-start energy during this time to inspire what you might want to do next.
Step 2: Learn how to tell your partner you got laid off (or furloughed)
"The first thing is to make sure you’re direct and completely transparent," says Dr. Cirbus. "Letting your partner know exactly what happened adds to the trust in the relationship and the message that you’re in this together as a team. Let your partner know the exact numbers the two of you are dealing with, then you can move forward with a plan of action."
You're not a robot, and so—of course—it's impossible to fully separate "I got laid off/took a pay cut" from "Wow, I don't' feel great," but to the best of your abilities, Trombetti recommends parsing your emotions and plans for the future. "When you tell your partner you are laid off, you need to separate the two. The 'what should we do next?' is often clouded and squeezed out by the emotional fallout, keeping you from thinking with clarity to even take a practical approach," she says.
"Remind yourself your feelings are normal and valid, but that tomorrow is another day and another opportunity." —Susan Trombetti, relationship expert
Trombetti and Dr. Cirbus agree that having any sort of plan can lift that emotional weight from your chest. And if guilt does linger (no one wants to let their loved one down, after all), remind yourself, continually and compassionately, that this moment is very much beyond your control. "Tell yourself this and that you aren't the only one in this predicament. Remind yourself your feelings are normal and valid, but that tomorrow is another day and another opportunity. Hopefully, things will return to normal as soon as possible," says Trombetti.
This reminder that you're far from alone in your feelings and guilt may prove especially important for women who feel like they've spent their professional lives breaking out of the patriarchal mold that says mothers, wives, and girlfriends can't possibly be the financial providers. Don't discount those feelings either, and if it helps, explain to your partner what societal pressures are making your layoff or pay cut especially triggering.
Step 3: Plan how to move forward together
You'll need to negotiate your budget based on the altered household income, and to do so successfully requires open communication, respect, and compassion. "The key is to use this time to talk about your value systems around money. What are your feeling—your fears, desires, and plans?" asks Dr. Cirbus "Make sure you understand just what feelings are tied into money for both of you. You don’t have to think about it in the same way, but you do want to know and respect where each other is coming from."
If your S.O. doesn't respond as well as you'd hoped, Trombetti says you may also learn something about them. "Someone who isn't supportive during this time is someone you might want to reconsider when you are back on your feet," she says. Right now, though, just take care of you.
If you're not getting the support you need from within your partnership, reach out to friends and family, try app-based services like Happy Not Perfect, or seek therapy if you find yourself longing to talk to someone you don't know. And let yourself be sad and feel your feelings authentically, but do a little dreaming about the future, too: What would your next career move look like in the most ideal world?
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