Broke, stressed and at each other"s throats: The couples whose money worries are pushing their marriages to the brink

Till debt do us part
Broke, stressed and at each other”s throats – the couples whose money worries are pushing their marriages to the brink

Had she known that buying her small son a new comic and some sweets would lead to such a row, Tammy Butler might have thought twice before handing over the money to the newsagent.

But then again, she hadn’t expected her husband Paul to see red about her spending such a seemingly insignificant sum.

‘He went mad, saying we couldn’t afford luxuries like this, and we had a terrible row,’ recalls Tammy, 34. ‘It wasn’t the first — we argue a lot about money nowadays. He has a go at me about spending unnecessarily on the family, and I get angry when he wants to go out with his friends because we can’t afford it. Life’s become unbelievably difficult.’

Under pressure: Paul and Tammy Butler have been feeling the strain since the recession hit

Under pressure: Paul and Tammy Butler have been feeling the strain since the recession hit

It’s not a situation they thought they’d find themselves in. Until the recession struck two years ago, the Butlers were comfortably off — Tammy earned 50,000 a year as a marketing manager and Paul around 30,000 running a hotel.

They had a beautiful home in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, ate out at good restaurants regularly and frequently went on holiday.

But since then, both have been made redundant twice and are now working in jobs earning half what they used to. They’ve managed to cling on to the house, but everything else has gone.

‘We’re grateful to be working,’ says Tammy, ‘but when we get home each night, we sit in the same front room watching the same TV programmes because we can’t afford to go out.’

Tammy buys food that’s been reduced because it’s near its sell-by date, and there are no family trips to the zoo with seven-year-old Alex, birthday presents or other treats. ‘The recession has sucked all the fun out of our lives and we are left trying to cling on to what brought us together in the first place,’ she says.

The Butlers aren’t the only ones suffering. Last month, a Femail article on the ‘squeezed middle classes’ provoked a huge response from readers keen to share their economic woes and fears for the bleak winter ahead.

Many detailed how financial hardship was not only ruining their finances but relationships as well. And they aren’t alone. Relate recently reported a rise in demand for its marital counselling services in two-thirds of its centres, while the Office for National Statistics reveals divorce rates have risen by 6 per cent as the economy worsens.

Relate says a quarter of all couples are arguing far more, with money worries the common bone of contention.

Tammy admits: ‘Money worries drain everything, and have had a marked effect on our relationship. But thank goodness we’ve managed to stay together — of Paul’s seven closest friends, three are divorcing as a result of the recession and all the problems it brings. It makes you feel incredibly vulnerable.’ Forty-year-old PR consultant Emma Woods, who lives in Amersham, Bucks, is facing a similar crisis.

Before the economic downturn, she felt she had it all: a four-bedroomed detached home, three children and a happy marriage to Nick, an entrepreneur running his own successful business selling kitchen equipment to restaurants and hotels.

Secret worry: Very few people are willing to share their financial concerns with friends or family

Secret worry: Very few people are willing to share their financial concerns with friends or family

But then the storm hit. ‘Suddenly all my dreams for the future look in doubt,’ she says, ‘and I’m contemplating having to work full-time. My husband and I bicker far more about money and our relationship has taken a turn for the worse. I feel constantly under pressure from all sides.

‘The tensions between us are growing even worse as we approach Christmas. I would love to splash out on lovely presents for the family, but we just do not have the money. Nick and I argue about it endlessly.

‘I worry far more than Nick because I like to plan for the future, and I hate the fact that we can’t put any money away as savings, or into a pension pot, or pay for treats. The worry is constantly in the back of my mind, and this inevitably takes its toll on our relationship. I snap at him when it isn’t his fault, and it is rather a symptom of the worry than a problem in our relationship.’

Professor Jan Pahl, Emeritus Professorof Social Policy at Kent University and author of Money And Marriage, believes couples up and down the country are in similar situations to Emma and Tammy.

‘Many marriages will crumble under the pressure,’ she warns. ‘Money is the main topic of controversy within a marriage, alongside sex or the lack of it. What is hardest for couples is that it’s a secret worry — very few people are willing to share their financial worries with friends or family.’

“My husband and I bicker far more about money and our relationship has taken a turn for the worse. I feel constantly under pressure from all sides”

Emma agrees. ‘Little things spark offrows constantly — who is spending the most, who is wasting money. We know that we have to pull together on this but you can’t help feeling resentful and apportioning blame.’

ProfessorPahl says: ‘The complication in a marriage is that a family is not a single financial unit. Usually both of the couple are earning, and they have their own money and their own spending priorities. Usually women will prioritise the children and the home, whereas men are much more likely to spend money on themselves, gadgets or sport. A great deal of the tension comes from these differing priorities.’

Self-employedbeautician Vicky Morton, 24, agrees. She lives in Macclesfield, Cheshire, with her partner David, a 35-year-old who works for a plastic manufacturer, and their three young children and says: ‘The financial situation means so many of my dreams for the future are being put on hold.

‘We’re living in a three-bedroomed end-of-terrace house, and I had planned for us to move in the next few years into a four-bedroom detached house with a bigger garden, to give the children more space and a bedroom each. But David’s company is cutting back — they have made redundancies and reduced hours for staff, so that is a constant worry and we’ve had to put our plans onhold.

‘Also, fewer women are having beauty treatments so my earnings have halved in the past two years.

‘Iam trying to cut back — but even one trip to Tesco and only filling half a trolley costs about 50. It’s putting pressure on our relationship, especially as David and I have a very different attitude to money — I love to spend, whereas he is much more cautious. I resent having to cut back on everything, whereas David says if we can’t afford it, we are not buying it.

‘He says I am expecting too much, and that is causing tension between us.’

Vicky, mum to Leon, five, Toby, three, and Millie, one, admits: ‘If I am honest, the hardest thing for me is putting my aspirations on hold. It is as if the future I had planned for us is going up in smoke.’

End of the road: There could be more pressure placed on one partner if they earn more money, shifting the balance of power which could spell the end of some marriages

End of the road: There could be more pressure placed on one partner if they earn more money, shifting the balance of power which could spell the end of some marriages

Professor Pahl believes money worries are the primary reason behind most marriage break-ups. She says: ‘The most important thing is for couples to talk to each other openly. You mustn’t let resentment fester, or hide bills from each other.

‘What the recession will mean is that there might be more pressure on one partner, if they can earn more money than the other, and this means the balance of power within the relationship may shift.’

So, if the wife has to go out to work, or work more, then the relationship will shift on its axis.

For 45-year-old Sarah Owen, who lives in Oxford and runs her own events business, the time has run out for positive thinking and she is in the process of divorcing her husband Stephen, also 45.

‘He was made redundant two years ago from his job running IT projects within the banking system,’ says Sarah, who has two children, Jack, 15, and Arthur, 13. ‘Stephen had been well paid, and I could afford to work part-time.

‘We hadn’t saved, because we thought the good times would never end. We did not envisage Stephen losing his job and when he did, it was as if his world had ended. He was paid a year’s salary, but we perhaps foolishly used that to pay off a part of the mortgage.

‘Then, instead of looking for work, he sat at home and in the evenings went out to the pub and began to drink heavily. I was the one trying to cope — it was as if he had opted out of his responsibilities to his family.’

Sarah built her business up, and began to work five days a week. Even so, their sons had to leave their private schools.

‘Stephen and I argued constantly about money and eventually we had a massive row and he walked out,’ says Sarah. ‘To be honest, it was a relief. It was as if he was constantly surrounded by a dark cloud.’

Sarah is now solely responsible for her family, as Stephen still does not have a job and is living with his parents. They are selling their four-bedroom country home.

‘In the space of six months, my life changed for ever,’ she says. ‘Money was definitely at the heart of it. I couldn’t bear the fact that Stephen seemed to have just given up.’

Professor Pahl says: ‘Everyone needs to take a long hard look at their finances, and if necessary, seek professional help from organisations such as the Citizens’ Advice Bureau or marriage guidance.

‘Life is going to be tough this year and next, and couples are going to have to be very protective of their relationships in order to weather the storm.

‘Sadly, many may fail.’

Some names have been changed.