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How Financial Insecurity Growing Up Impacts Later Relationships

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When we think of the most common topics that lead to arguments amongst married couples, it should come as no surprise that near the top of the list is money. How we spend it, how we save it, how we earn it and how we manage it are critical facets of the basic functioning of any household. So what happens when there is a distinct difference in how partners approach finances and in particular if one of the parties involved has a history of financial trauma from childhood? This is precisely the dynamic that exists within my marriage and I’m here to tell you that it can be extremely challenging, not just in general, but in particular when a global pandemic threatens not only your lives, but your livelihood.

• What is PTSD?

Growing up my husband lived in a solidly middle class neighborhood with two parents who had decent jobs. They were comfortable and never wanting for anything, at least not from a financial security perspective. This gave him an underlying sense that no matter what happens, everything will be OK. His motto is “We can always make more money.”

I grew up with a single mom who struggled with undiagnosed and unmanaged mental health issues and a deadbeat dad who scarcely paid child support and had nothing to do with me after my parents divorced. My childhood was punctuated with several moves due to my mom not being able to pay the rent resulting in eviction, collections agencies hounding our phone at all times of the day and night, several bankruptcies, frequent bouts of unemployment due to my mothers unreliability, eating foods that were inexpensive to make or buy and a general sense of anxiety about money. I overheard countless conversations between my mother and grandmother about how they couldn’t pay XYZ bill and brainstorming which family member they could hit up for some help to make ends meet. In fact, after my mother and grandmother found out that my step grandfather was molesting me, instead of banishing him from our home forever they allowed him to continue visiting our home every week because he paid them to do his laundry and to cook for him, and they desperately needed that money.

My physical, mental and emotional safety was constantly in danger due to our financial insecurity and I was acutely aware of it. I felt responsible to help with cleaning houses as a child so that we could pay bills. I was conscious about helping my mom with her freelance jobs by keeping her on schedule and sometimes even helping her finish them. To this day, if I step into a Salvation Army the smell triggers my flight response… a remnant of the terror I often felt as a child about not having enough.

Something that came to light much later—like in my 30s—was the fact that my mother and grandmother were compulsive shoppers and gamblers, so it wasn’t even just a matter of not having enough, their behaviors resulted directly in my overwhelming sense of insecurity. Knowing that they chose to spend their money on frivolous things while continuing to expose me to the man who sexually abused me is something I will never forgive.

So to say that my basic template for handling financial stress is tainted by a constant scarcity mentality would be an understatement. My motto is “We could lose everything at anytime” which keeps me hypervigilant when it comes to money. This can cause friction between my husband and I. It’s not so much that we fight over it… it’s more that I get frustrated with his seemingly cheery optimism about money when to me the possibility of not having any feels catastrophic.

In March 2020 when we entered lockdown due to COVID-19 and had to shut down our business for the foreseeable future, I quite literally felt like I was having a nervous breakdown. My panic was making me ill to the point that I didn’t think I could survive it. The wheels in my head were spinning so hard trying to figure out how to sustain ourselves financially for the next who knows how many months that I think you could see smoke coming out of my ears. The sheer terror, helplessness and complete lack of control I felt was almost intolerable. And I think what made it feel even worse was that my husband didn’t seem particularly concerned. He knew we had a safety net and was content to just ride the wave. I think what I was feeling was intense envy that he could just settle into all of this while I couldn’t sit still for five minutes without searching for grants, loans, debt forgiveness programs, unemployment benefits and any other kind of financial supplement that I could think of.

Ultimately things calmed down and we were able to stay afloat, but we did have to reckon with the discrepancies between our responses to financial stress. It took some introspection on my part to comprehend my reactivity and to be able to articulate it to my husband in a way that he could understand. In the months, nay years, since COVID began we have settled into a better and healthier dynamic within our marriage where instead of just trying to placate me or minimize the anxiety that I feel surrounding money, my husband acknowledges my trauma response—reminding me that we are safe and that no matter what we will be OK. This has been super helpful in keeping me grounded in the present instead of letting my scared inner child hijack my brain, because realistically… we can always make more money.

Getty image by Gearstd

Originally published: January 26, 2022
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