Of all the things you wish to align between you and your partner—values, procreative plans, a shared love for bad reality TV—perhaps debt should be higher on that list, particularly when research shows that money conflict tends to correlate with divorce. Have you ever asked yourself: How much debt is too much for love to carry? And would too much debt prevent you from actually marrying the person you love?
If you wouldn’t attach too much weight to numbers, it’s still true that they might certainly disrupt marital bliss. In a piece at The Atlantic looking at couples with disproportionate debt of the student loan variety, Bourree Lam cites research that shows couples who get into it over finances a few times a week are 30 percent more likely to divorce, as compared to those who only argue once a month, as well as a poll that found that 44 percent of Americans list money as the hardest thing to talk about. Lam writes:
Disproportionate student debt can make that already-challenging conversation all the more complicated. A survey by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling found that 57 percent of respondents had reservations about being in a relationship with someone with a large amount of debt, with 37 percent saying that they’d wait to get married until the debts were repaid, and slightly more—46 percent—saying they’d be open to getting married and jointly paying off the debt.
She speaks with an assistant prof in economics at the University of North Carolina who found that every $10k in student loans lowers marriage desirability by 3 or 4 percent. But interestingly, it may not really be the debt itself that stresses couples out so much as it is a differing amount of debt. I’d guess that this is because the difference in two people’s debt loads can be the result of so many factors: Not everyone has parents who can swing their college expenses; not everyone is eligible for a free ride. Then there are the personal choices and attitudes about money, often inherited from your parents, that become part of the murky overall picture that is your financial health.
Then when you merge economic realities with someone else, those differences in debt and income and spending money can create all sorts of problems. Financial planner Karen Carr told Lam:
“Conflicts arise over money personalities: who’s the spender, who’s the saver, who likes to track their spending down to the very penny, and who is more of a flier—meaning they just let what happens happen,” explains Carr. “Just because you do things differently and just because you go about saving or spending or paying down debt differently doesn’t mean you can’t exist within the same couple. You don’t have to change the other person.”
But you do have to be able to talk about money and your approach to it. This stuff is not easy because it’s so weirdly emotional. Lots of people spend money in certain ways for reasons that are not the least bit rational, or that can only be justified by explaining one’s emotional relationship to money, or fears about not having enough, or guilt about having too much.
A column at the Billfold perfectly illustrates how this sort of thing can come up before marriage even enters the picture. Nicole Dieker writes about dating someone who thought dropping $150 at a sushi place was no bigs, but also dating someone who thought brand name Rice-A-Roni was pretty fancy. She writes:
In both cases I would have been happier if our shared spending was a little closer to what I felt comfortable contributing financially—because we went pretty much 50/50 on those sushi dinners, even though that was nearly all of my discretionary income and only a small percentage of his—but I only have myself to blame for not standing up for my own financial needs.
And what was I going to say to the Rice-A-Roni boyfriend? “Hey, I’d like to start spending more on our relationship than you can afford?” That didn’t seem quite right, either.
Surely by the time you get married these issues will have been discussed and resolved, right? Maybe? In a piece over at Marie Claire, Nona Willis Aronowitz writes about how it feels to take on her husband’s debt through marriage:
When I graduated from a private liberal arts school in 2006, I thought I had gotten away scot-free. Thanks to savvy parents and a generous grandma, I graduated without any student-loan debt. But then I fell in love with Aaron, who had taken out $30,000 in loans to finance his film degree. When we got married in 2009, his monthly $250 bill became mine, too. So instead of squirreling away to buy a home, we’ve spent our first years of marriage chipping away at his debt. It doesn’t change how I feel about him, but it does add an extra layer of stress. His $30,000 ball and chain feels like it will be around forever.
She also tells the story of 28-year-old Maia, who was dumped inexplicably by a guy, only to later find out it was because he didn’t want to be with someone who was in debt, and she was sitting on $200k in student loans. Another woman quoted in the story broke up with a guy who had too much debt and “no idea how to manage it all.”
But in both these scenarios, it’s possible—likely—that these may not have been excellent matches otherwise, and I have to wonder if or when the debt is the only dealbreaker, and if so, exactly how much it takes. It’s always about more than just the money; it’s about class, which is just a powerful shorthand for a person’s sense of stability. You may spend or save to stave off fear, assuage guilt, ignore reality, who knows. Being able to talk openly about how you do money requires an enormous self-awareness, and it’s likely not easily changed.
When I got married, I brought in student loans, the mortgage on the house I’d bought with an ex-boyfriend, and a super-cool $7,000 worth of credit card debt I’d also accumulated with him. That seemed like a shitty thing to do—asking my husband to help me pay off the debt I acquired with my ex—but if merging with someone is about really sharing resources, then the argument for waiting to pay all that debt off on my own before getting married seemed silly. Plus, he had some debt too. He had less debt, but he was younger, and his parents could afford to pay for his college, whereas I’d had no such option.
In the Marie Claire piece, another woman, 25-year-old Steph, said she happily helped pay off her boyfriend Aaron’s debt when they got together. But the key factor in it not dissuading her from marrying him was how determined he was to face it. That determination is crucial. What other attitude, if not a mature willingness to deal with your baggage, literal or otherwise, is the best predictor of weathering future relationship troubles than that?
Illustration by Jim Cooke.