Debt & Imbalance: One Spouse Shoulders Financial Burdens Caused by the Other

Moving the old toy box in the basement together. Sharing the burden makes it easier.

FSW = Financially stressed wife

FSW inspires this week’s post

A couple of days after writing last week’s post on breaking the taboo of debt-talk at work, I was surprised to receive a message from someone I’ll call FSW (for financially stressed wife). I didn’t even know she was reading my blog. “Did you ever think of writing about the historical expectation that a man should provide for his wife and family, and that if he doesn’t, he is less of a man? I believe that is part of the shame we feel when talking about debt when we are in a relationship.” I thought, What a great idea for a post!  Debt and gender roles. It’s a sensitive issue that many people find awkward to talk about. 

I thought I understood why she was making the suggestion. I knew in a vague way that her husband had suffered a failed business and that they’d dealt with more or less chronic financial stress as a result. I asked FSW if I could write a post about her experience. It wasn’t a comfortable thing for her, but she said, “Yes,” and she answered the questions that I sent to her by e-mail.

As I read her answers, I realized that my understanding of her situation had been wrong. This wasn’t a case of a man’s bad luck in his career and of his wife’s sharing the resulting financial burden with him. It was a different case altogether. I changed my mind about what I would write for this week’s post. I’d write about the dilemma one spouse faces when the other persists in corrosive career and money moves that negatively impact everyone in the household. Despite the experience of hitting rock bottom; despite the suffering of the family.

Visions of grandeur: Addiction to “making it big!”

“My husband is in debt due to business ventures,” she wrote. (I’d thought there had been only one business mishap.) “I don’t know how much … He hasn’t given me any info this year – though I ask for it on a regular basis. I support us and have done so for most of our marriage … My feelings of insecurity, and stress – which I explained to him on many occasions – have never seemed to affect his actions.”

And what have those “actions” been? FSW points out that her husband has consistently worked hard. That it has never been a matter of laziness. She believes the problem is that he is not realistic. “I think that [he] and perhaps other people who take risks in business are extremely optimistic . . . He is a thinker, always coming up with new ideas . . . [He] loves the idea of making it big!! Every idea he has is going to be a huge success. He never thinks small and steady. He seems to repeat the same errors over and over . . . He also wants to have a job that enhances his perception of himself. So being the owner of his own business . . . is much more prestigious than doing some menial job.”

FSW’s uncertainty: What can she do?

While FSW has been steadily working, earning an income, and managing it to support the family, her husband has been dreaming, borrowing money for business, and when it doesn’t work out, dreaming a new dream – only to repeat the cycle. Deaf to her advice; in denial of the weight she carries alone.  A clear picture of his character and of her situation formed in my mind as I read her words. “It is unfortunate he has not been in partnership with a person who could put his dreams into action in a realistic way,” she wrote. I don’t think so, I thought. He wouldn’t accept the input of a practical person – like his wife. He would feel limited by it. “I also think it’s a kind of addiction,” FSW wrote of her husband’s repeated patterns. “I am the enabler.”

FSW is an outspoken person who has added spice to her life by seeking out opportunities to take on unique work, to travel extensively, and to meet adventure in a way that goes beyond most people’s confidence to do so. Why has such an apparently strong and independent woman endured the imbalance in her relationship? And why has she not talked about her situation? “Good question. Why have I never really talked about it? I have talked to him ad nauseam. One friend suggested I talk with a psychologist. I suppose I think that my only other option is to divorce him … something I have considered… but since he is a good person, we enjoy doing many things together, we have been together for [many] years and have many common friends, and because I stand to lose half of all I own and earn, I choose not to go that route. I don’t know anyone who could really help him/us.”

Listen to your friend! I thought. Of course you should see a counsellor. Both of you should. But would he agree to it? Perhaps not. After all, he doesn’t believe there is a problem. “He is not a consumer type of person. He doesn’t buy things for himself and usually thinks we don’t need more than we have already – which is true. We are comfortable and have been most of our married life.” I imagined the workings of her inner doubt:  Am I exaggerating? she must ask herself. He’s not all bad. Nobody has a perfect marriage. Maybe this is no worse than what other people deal with.

I feel anger, discouragement, disappointment, regret, impatience, fatalism, and many other feelings. Shame too I suppose, but I am ashamed of myself, for allowing this to happen. How could I let the situation go on and on? I should have been more demanding at the beginning of our relationship. Sometimes, I can’t believe how patient, and dumb I have been over the years.”

I felt a real sadness for FSW. I’d had no idea of her hidden frustrations and uncertainties. I wondered along with her: What can she do? Opening up is definitely a good place to start. “Well, that wasn’t so painful,” FSW wrote at the end of her answers. “I hope it may be helpful to you. If you want any more details, or better yet, if you have any advice for me, let me know!!”

I feel utterly unqualified to offer advice to FSW, but she is seeking direction. Do you know of a situation where one spouse is shouldering the financial burden alone? Do you have any insight to offer?

Helpful and respectful comments are welcome.



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20 CommentsLeave a comment

  • FSW is in a pickle of a situation. Her husband doesn’t appear to be an inherently bad person but he is acting selfishly with his decision making which results in FSW shouldering way too much for far too long. I think they both should consider seeking marriage counselling. She will need to make some very tough decisions if her husband doesn’t wise up and get over his own ego. I wish her the best!

    • Thank you for being the first one to be brave enough to respond, Kassandra. It is a such a sensitive matter. You raise a good point by saying her husband is not inherently bad. That’s what makes it so tough!

  • I can relate to FSW in some ways. My husband is maybe not such an ideas man and he is a hard worker but he’s not such a go getter. He’s worked for a low wage for a number of years now (despite having obtained a professional accreditation three years ago) and wasn’t able to figure out a way to improve this. On top of this he’s a terrible communicator, so my inquiries about the situation are met with little substance coming back. So I feel the burden of providing the majority of the income and feel extreme pressure to ensure my job security is intact, leading to workaholism of sorts. I remember one conversation he did communicate a bit more than usual but I was really needling him because I was so frustrated with our situation. He said that getting laid off had a big impact on him but it had been about 15 years since he had been laid off. I threw it back in his face and said “so what, many people get laid off in their careers and they don’t have big pity parties about it.” I wasn’t taking any excuses. It’s hard to say if it helped or not. He worked harder after that, but still at a low wage due to changes in the field he is working in. He’s not lazy, he does the lion’s share of the work around the house but I have been continually frustrated by his low income. I don’t care if it’s half of my income, but his was about 1/4 and well below any kind of national average. There has been a change in his situation that I have not blogged about yet because it’s really new and we’re trying to figure everything out. Part of it was luck and part of it was him finally deciding that he was going to have to do something to change things up when he faced a couple of weeks of low business again recently. I think he felt the stress because he knows I’m counting on him giving me $2400 per month minimum, in order to make our debt repayment targets. So I don’t have any answers on how to handle these type of men, but I’m long on empathy for FSW. I also totally understand her wanting to stay with him. My husband is a good person, a bit stubborn but with a big heart. I love him and I want to grow old with him. I pray that he gets to a place where we both can relax and I can be more accepting that he is contributing enough. If we didn’t have debt to pay off it would be less of an issue, but not entirely as we still want to build up our retirement nest egg some more too so we can both retire. Good luck FSW!

    • Debs, I can’t thank you enough for your response. It’s obviously not an easy post to comment on, and you’ve done so with such heart and transparency. I’m sure that when FSW reads your words, she will know that she is not alone in her situation. There are differences of course, but a similar underlying stress. A strong confrontation is never pleasant, but it is so often what it takes to get things moving. I’m happy to hear about the recent positive change in your husband’s situation. I look forward to hearing more about it. Thanks again for your thoughtful comment.

  • More than anything, this post and the heart-felt comments re-inforce my strong-held belief that communication is everything in a relationship: no matter how big or small the problem, if communication breaks down then doubt and frustration take over, and it’s impossible to work together to sort things out under those circumstances.

    • You are so right in saying that communication is everything in a relationship! The thing is, most young couples think of money as a very mundane, unromantic, awkward thing to talk about. Since money stress is the #1 reason for marital breakdown, however, nothing could be more important than for couples to get their finances sorted out very early in the relationship to build a strong foundation. Thanks for your comment, Myles.

  • I have to be honest, the question you received from your reader made my heart skip a beat. ““Did you ever think of writing about the historical expectation that a man should provide for his wife and family, and that if he doesn’t, he is less of a man?” <—– Several years into our debt management program, and hours of thinking about the question "How did we get here?" I came to the conclusion that this was exactly the reason I stopped communicating with my wife. If she, or my kids, wanted something, I equated saying "No" with being a failure as a husband and as a father. I love the picture you included – bearing the burden makes it so much easier. Once my wife and I got back on our feet and walking in the right direction together, and I realized that it's OK to not be able to afford everything and anything, it was so much easier because the question of "can we afford this?" answered itself. Vonnie knew how much money we had, and we worked together to determine what we would spend our money on. that freezer is heavy on your own, but together? Much, much easier. 🙂 (…..or toybox. 🙂 not sure why I thought it was a freezer.)

    • VERY interesting to get the input of someone in your position, Travis – a father and a husband who feels the force of the (outdated?) societal equation that says “provider =man”. I don’t think that too many men who have experienced that kind of pressure would ever actually admit to it. I appreciate the fact that you have! I’m glad that you and Vonnie were able to work through your communication problems. I hope that FSW and her husband will be able to do so as well. It won’t happen without the same fearless honesty that you exemplified though. (And it does look a little like a freezer : )

  • I don’t have any advice, but I feel sorry for your friend. I can’t imagine being in the dark like that…especially when it comes to debt. I hope she finds a way to start communicating with her husband so they can begin sorting things out.

    • You are very fortunate and wise to have established a relationship in which you “can’t imagine being in the dark”. I think that secrecy about money management is rampant among married couples – there’s such a resistance to opening up. Like you, I hope that FSW will find a way to get that communication going in an effective way. Thanks for your comment, Holly.

  • I think traditionally the man, dad, father is to provide for his family. So much has changed over time, that isn’t the case these days. The first impression I got when reading FSW’s story is that there is a marriage/communication issue. I know our lack of communication led to part of our debt problems. We had to improve our bad behaviors in many areas to overcome our financial issues. Good luck FSW!

    • Thanks for your comment, Brian. It’s true that money problems are never just about money. You and your wife were able to overcome your troubles with communication and to change your patterns of behaviour – and it resulted in your debt repayment! I hope that FSW and her husband can take some inspiration from your example.

  • Not an expert here but my advice would be counselling. If not together, then alone. It can be helpful to have an objective 3rd party weigh in and offer some constructive ways to deal with the situation. It sounds to me like hubby is in DENIAL. Denial is a powerful mental state/tool/mechanism that can be destructive – it is often seen in addiction and other self-destructive behaviours. A counselor should be able to help with this.
    I would also suggest making sure she protects herself financially – make sure she has money in her own name that she has access to in the event things go badly. Not to plan for that scenario BUT to have some peace of mind and remove some stress so that she can deal with things as they are without additional worry.
    I would also suggest finding out if she is liable at all for the business financial situation to make sure she’s able to deal with things knowing the whole picture.
    Good luck FSW! I hope things work out.

    • Good point about denial, Messy Money May. And smart to find out what she needs to do to protect herself if necessary. It’s a very difficult transition for a spouse to have to consider his or her partner as a possible liability – but your advice rings true. Thanks for your comment!

    • I believe that this type of predicament – or a variation or it – is unfortunately more widespread than you might think. Again, it’s one of those things nobody talks about, so those who find themselves in this situation don’t know what to do. Thanks for your comment, Kayla.

  • I don’t think I could deal with what your friend is dealing with. I need to know everything. Her husband is lucky he’s not my husband. He would never get any sleep until I was satisfied that I had all of the information. All of it. God Bless this woman. She is a saint! And he is a lucky man to have her.

    • Thank you Kay. I think it’s a case of things happening gradually and not being caught and dealt with early on – in the name of keeping the peace. It can be tough to know, in a marriage, where the line is. By the time that line gets crossed so clearly to everyone else, it becomes a matter of shame to the spouse who “let it happen”. I think secrecy is the big issue here. People really do need to talk about their difficulties and get the feedback of trusted friends who have their best interest at heart.

  • I think this is a tough one. There are a lot of assumptions as to what we are supposed to do in a relationship, especially when it comes to money. I think it’s all about communication and also shared goals. It can be easy to be resentful if you are shouldering the burden of your partner’s debt.

    • I’m with you.. There are assumptions – and as a result, so few couples actually hash through their finances and sort out their differing “assumptions” in order to find that common ground on which to build. I think that for young couples, the idea of communication being so pragmatic and detailed just seems boring, unromantic and so far from their feelings at the time of launching into a marriage. Ironically, it’s the key to the success of that marriage. Thanks for your comment, Melanie.

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