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Introduction 

In the opening two papers, we presented and analysed the relationship between debt and mental health problems. It has been established that recent findings suggest that debt at the least mediates the relationship between wider financial problems and mental health disorders – and it is important to reinforce at every opportunity, that individual income is largely irrelevant. Any individual in debt is at risk of detrimental effects to their mental health. On the other hand, what about couples and families? Over the next two essays, we will explore the human cost and consequences of associations between debt and mental health. This essay will examine specifically the relationship between debt, marital satisfaction and divorce/separation. 

The 2007 – 2009 recession heightened scholarly and public awareness of the association between financial issues and adult romantic relationships. In 2008, Kneale made a striking discovery –  those affected the most by the 2008 recession were eight times more likely to have their relationship or marriage break down. Money holds a symbolic potential, it reflects deeply held values more than any other commodity and the problems or disagreements related to it tend too last longer and are harder to solve than other types of disagreements. Furthermore, indebted couples generally work more hours than they desire in order to make payments. Therefore, indebtedness detrimentally impacts mental health, drains mental and emotional capital, and demands not only a couple’s future money but their time as well. It would not then be outlandish to suggest that debt, in the context of wider financial problems, has some relationship with marital breakdowns and divorces. Similarly, though, to the relationship between financial problems and common CMD’s, the relationship between debt and divorce or separation has been largely ignored until recently. Research is finally growing, however, and thus far the body of evidence suggests that there are strong associations between household debt and divorce. This paper will present evidence not only of the problem and its extent but in the latter half also how the strongest couples manage to avoid the dangers of indebtedness and thus offer insight into how to tackle the problem that is emerging.  

‘The Stigma on Debt 

Firstly, however, in order to present recent findings in the right context, it is important to emphasize the stigma attached to talking about and dealing with debt in our society. In a series of interviews conducted by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute with highly indebted persons in 2016, one respondent said:  

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On top of this, 54% of respondents said that they would not discuss their difficulties with a healthcare professional – and of that same 54%, 69% contradicted themselves in a sense, by admitting that doing so would probably have helped them. So, people appear to logically grasp that discussing their debts may help them but choose not to anyway because of the shame attached to being in debt. Clearly, this highlights the challenges any insolvency practitioner or debt advisor face in their attempts to help clients manage their debts. Prospective clients will likely be apprehensive out of not only the understandable suspicion of big companies offering them financial service but also because even where they are offered significantly beneficial aid, they feel a sense of shame. The most striking evidence of the taboo placed on talking about finance can be attributed to the University College of London. In 2015, they found that in a survey of 15,000 – respondents were seven times more likely to disclose with a stranger how many sexual partners they had or any experiences they may have had with STD’s, as opposed to how much money they earn or owe to creditors. Overall, despite great strides in our society to try and tackle the stigma attached to mental health problems (likely in response to the epidemic level figures coming out on British male suicide levels), it is clear that more must be done to remove the stigma attached to honest, open discussion about finance – especially when we consider the emerging associations with mental health.  

 Associations 

Couples are just as vulnerable to the psychological effects and consequences of indebtedness as any individual. Married adults have 34% higher odds of being in debt than those who are single, and are particularly prone to accumulating credit card balances. As highlighted in Paper 2 however, it must be noted that responses to indebtedness respond at the individual level. Evidence suggests that married men and women respond in different ways, and there are certain patterns that must be presented to contextualise the relationship between debt and divorce.  

Firstly, despite the growth of the 21st-century feminist movement, traditional gender roles within a partnership remain largely intact in Western society. In the vast majority of homes, men remain the head of household and willingly undertake the responsibilities and pressures that come with this. Heads of household, according to Sarah Brown, are responsible for on average 85% of household debt in British families. Where this debt becomes unmanageable and beyond the household head’s control, he may become prone to all CMD’ or behavioural responses outlined in Paper 2, due to the damage dealt to his self-esteem and sense of identity as a competent provider for his family. Taylor et al. in 2007 found that housing or essential utility arrears were particularly damaging to married men. Furthermore, evidence suggests that provision of financial security remains of importance to women in a relationship, with over 90% agreeing that financial stability was essential to any successful marriage in a study conducted by John Gathergood. Gathergood found, contrary to his own hypothesis, that a positive relationship exists between the head of household’s ability to deal with a payment difficulty and the psychological health of the household heads spouse – and that this directly affected the marital satisfaction of wives. This suggests that, by impacting directly a couple’s marital satisfaction, a relationship exists between debt and divorce – the following presentation of evidence will assess whether this is a direct or mediatory relationship.  

 Debt as a Mediator 

Most studies have considered debt to be a mediator that explains the relationship between financial hardship or conflict and divorce or separation. For example, Dew and Britt found in 2010 that financial disagreements account for more divorces than even infidelity and distrust. Couples who argue about finances every day were found to have a 69% higher hazard ratio of divorce than couples who never do so, and this ratio grows on a monthly basis. Furthermore, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention found that couples who argued over finances once per week had a 39% higher hazard ratio than those who never do so. Building on this link, Dew, in a deeper study in 2014 used the Family Stress Model in order to try and explain this association. The financial disagreement was established as the primary ‘distal cause’ of divorce (in simple terms, consider the distal cause to be the root of the problem, divorce the result.) A number of variables were used as more immediate, ‘proximate causes’ in order to try and explain the relationship – for example, the total number of assets, income and crucially – household debt. The number of assets had the most positive association with high marital satisfaction; whereas household debt had the most positive association with low marital satisfaction. Dew concluded with sufficient evidence that debt is the immediate, proximate cause which most effectively mediates the wider relationship between financial conflict and divorce.  

 Debt as an Independent Variable 

However, on the contrary, studies conducted particularly on newlywed couples offer evidence leaning more towards an independent, direct relationship between debt and divorce. In 2007, Skogrund found in a survey study that bringing debt into a marriage (as opposed to accruing it after wedlock) may make for an unhappy union, and very quickly. The National Centre for Health Statistics has claimed that marriages are most fragile in the first 5 years, accounting for over 20% of divorces. During the first 3 years, money was the most reported subject of disagreement, seemingly reinforcing the above outlined mediatory relationship. However, back to Skogrund – her study found that for both husbands and wives, even debts equal to or below $1000 could have a tangible impact on marital satisfaction upon entry into marriage. The fact that such a small outstanding balance, manageable for the overwhelming majority of individuals let alone couples with shared resources, could impact marital satisfaction has made certain in the minds of Skogrund, Oggins and more that debt is an independent variable, directly associated with divorce, not merely a mediator between financial conflict as a whole and divorce.  

 A Positive Reiteration 

The above section, then, outlines one of the major human costs of consumer debt – a dramatically increased exposure to separation or divorce. This is a fairly bleak picture, however, the importance of managing, handling and preferably avoiding debt can be emphasized just as effectively by looking towards healthy, stable marriages. Again, with regards to fighting over money, it is evident that even a little can go a long way – couples who fight over money even just once per month have an 11% higher hazard ratio for divorce than those who don’t at all. Skogrund found that one of the primary strengths happily married couples, in self-reported ‘great’ marriages, was that they avoided major debt entirely or took swift action to clear it, and endeavoured to live within their means. 41 out of 64 respondent couples delegated day to day finances to one partner based on who was most competent – clear communication, consultation and trust were essential requirements to make this work. This, however, raises the problem outlined above, discussing finances is still evidently too difficult a conversation for many people to have. Money remains a highly stigmatized, taboo subject in our society – and it would be incorrect to suggest that individuals are able to unshackle themselves from this stigma entirely when it comes to talking and consulting with their partner instead of a stranger. Note how the respondent above who entered an IVA stated that his partner “even now doesn’t know the full truth” about their financial situation. Skogrund points out that many adults, particularly men who buy into and identify strongly with the ‘provider male’ archetype, will look to uptake the burden themselves – and in spite of their good intentions fail to communicate effectively with their partner, an essential requirement for marital satisfaction. Two conclusions can be taken from this study:  

  • 1. To take steps towards becoming debt free is to take steps towards greater marital satisfaction; 
  • 2. Clear, honest communication about finance between partners is an essential principle for the majority of healthy marriages – removing the stigma attached to discussing debt from our society would make this considerably easier to achieve for most couples.

To Conclude 

As above, it is clear that some relationship exists between debt and divorce or separation. Whether this is a mediatory relationship, explaining the wider association between financial conflict and divorce/separation; or an independent, direct relationship is undecided amongst experts. This paper has presented the case for both. In doing so, it has introduced the reader to the real, human cost of our society’s relationship with consumer debt. Paper 4 will take this deeper – focusing on perhaps an even more important issue. This paper has shown that the consequences of consumer debt are not restricted to just the indebted individual, they also impact his or her spouse – Paper 4 will show that the buck does not yet stop here. It is probably fair to say that the most important thing for many families is the future of their children. A child’s mental health is the crucial underpinning for any positive future they may have – and research shows that not only can debt impact marital satisfaction and the mental health of adults, but also the mental health of their children.  

Researched and written by Craig Lynch

Previous Essays

Associations between Debt and Mental Health – Outline of Realities

Associations between Debt and Mental Health – Associations & Responses