The current recession in the US presents some unique challenges to couples. This is due to a very specific set of circumstances that came together in the past two years, particularly in the Southwest and in Florida. Adding to job loss and depletion of savings, couples in these parts of the country had the added stress of dealing with the loss of their homes. And this happened almost overnight. Because the real estate market was hit so hard and so deeply by the recession in places like the Phoenix metropolitan area in Arizona where I live and work, couples found the values of their homes drop suddenly and with no forewarning. Houses are now worth on average 31% less than they were just a couple of years ago, and in some neighborhoods less than 50%. And nobody is buying them!
For most couples, owning their home has historically been a point of pride and an opportunity to live the American dream of upward mobility and independence. It is also their main investment. Add to this picture the use of “creative” mortgages that encouraged people to buy the biggest house they could afford with almost no money down, with the expectation of later rewards, when their home increased in value, and you have a perfect storm.
And a perfect storm was exactly what hit many couples who, when the real estate market collapsed, felt trapped in their own homes. A lot of couples found themselves upside down in their mortgages and unable to make their monthly payments. After months and months of surviving under very strenuous conditions, a lot of couples depleted their economic resources. In many cases one or both partners lost their jobs or had to take a pay cut. As men felt the impact of this economic catastrophe, they displaced their stress onto their primary relationships. Women, whose level of stress is directly influenced by what happens in their relationships, saw their stress level rise as well. Conflicts between partners increased, while at the same time the possibility of physically separating became less and less of an option for most couples. Living together was at times the only alternative open to them, at least until it was hoped things would get better.
It must be extremely difficult to live together when at least one spouse wants out and begin processing the loss of the relationship when the other partner is still around. The appearance of normality may make the hurt deeper and more painful. While hurt may build up in one partner, resentment may build up in the other, as she or he feels trapped, watched, controlled and often criticized by the other.
If couples do not do anything to improve their situation, they will continue to chip away at the foundations of their relationship until nothing will be left, in the process building thicker walls between them and preventing any healthy communication from taking place.
As a psychotherapist, I see both problems and potential benefits stemming from couples living together because their economic circumstances do not allow them to move apart. I suggest that these strenuous conditions may have not only negative effects, which are clear to see but also, potentially, positive ones. This is so because, while some couples may emotionally disconnect from one another in order to make their living arrangements more tolerable, others may decide to seek marriage counseling, or work on their relationship in other ways. Even for those who may feel past repairing the damage in their relationship, the need to learn to deal with one another is still an important part of ending their relationship.
When we are overwhelmed, preoccupied, scared or angry, we cannot access any feeling of love. The powerful emotions triggered by external stressors, in fact, prevent us from feeling anything else. Couples, therefore, often convince themselves that there is no love left for one another, and thus see their relationships as being over.
In the next post we will discuss how to become more aware of ALL our feelings, so we can make better decisions about how to act.
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