A DU psychology professor offers tips to families for managing financial stress

After more than two years of pandemic-fueled economic disruption, Americans are being hit with seemingly never-ending bad news about money: prices are surging, interest rates are rising, markets are volatile, and the possibility of a recession looms large. As a result, more of us are experiencing personal economic security and staring into an uncertain fiscal future. 

To call the situation stressful seems like an understatement. For couples and families, the toll exacted by this kind of stress can be especially damaging. Even during periods of economic prosperity, couples around the world consistently rank finances as the No. 1 greatest stressor they face, according to Howard Markman, co-director of DU’s Center for Marital & Family Studies and John Evans Distinguished Professor of Psychology.

“It’s the biggest issue couples argue about,” Markman says, “particularly in the context of the economic havoc wreaked by COVID and now the high inflation rate.” But what really keeps financial stress at the top of the list, he says, is how regularly it affects people’s lives.

“You deal with money issues every single day,” Markman points out. This creates a frequent, pressing need to address problems, negotiate and collaborate on difficult monetary decisions. Many couples simply lack the necessary knowledge and skills to accomplish this without fighting.

“It’s not the money problems that cause divorce or relationship issues, per se,” Markman says. “It’s how people handle the money problems.”

But the good news, Markman says, is that “these are skills and principles that people can learn.” He believes all couples, before getting married or committing to live together, should take a class on basic communication and conflict management skills, such as the one offered at the DU Couples Therapy Clinic, which is part of the Center for Child & Family Psychology. It’s a free class that’s open to everyone.

Therapists at the Couples Clinic follow the internationally recognized Prevention & Relationship Education Program (PREP). It’s an evidence-based, research-tested, short-term, active approach to couples therapy that was developed by Markman, who also serves as director of the Clinic and oversees the program’s implementation.

PREP teaches couples that making improvements to their communication doesn’t have to be complicated or difficult.

“We have tried-and-true ways to help people talk about issues,” Markman says. “For example, most couples talk about money issues at the worst possible time,” waiting until financial decisions are imminent, tensions are high, and time and privacy are low, which is a recipe for fighting.

Instead, Markman suggests setting aside time in advance to discuss finances and practice applying the simple but effective techniques taught as part of PREP. “This helps people avoid negative communication patterns,” he says.

“After 40 years of research at DU, we know the rabbit holes people go down,” he adds. PREP teaches couples to recognize and avoid these rabbit holes and then fill them in with more productive communication skills. The DU Couples Therapy Clinic offers a variety of free classes and workshops, as well as professional counseling services on a sliding fee scale, based on ability to pay. Sessions cost as little as $5 each. For more information, call the Couples Clinic at 303-871-3306 or fill out a contact form online.

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