The surprising toll debt takes on relationships — and how to overcome it

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There are just some conversation topics you tiptoe around, if not completely avoid, in a relationship, from your earth-shattering past sexual experiences to complaints about your partner’s annoying family. For many couples, debt ranks as an especially delicate topic. Disclosing your debt to your partner is a personal choice — but given the repercussions of bringing debt into a long-term partnership, it’s worth reflecting on whether refusing to discuss it might clue you into other relationship issues that need addressing. Mic spoke with Alison Nobrega, a therapist in Oakland, California, about what debt has to do with the health of your relationship.

It’s tempting to draw the conclusion that not being upfront with a partner about your debt means you’re hiding other things from them. But Nobrega encourages a more compassionate framing: It might indicate trauma from which you have yet to heal — trauma that can be hard to share with a partner. Identifying the shame, guilt, and other difficult emotions your debt triggers, as well as other areas of your life where those same emotions come up, might shine a light on this trauma, which can, in turn, benefit not only you, but your relationship, too.

To start this inner work, ask yourself what feelings come up when you think about your debt, Nobrega says. “Do we feel shameful for having this debt? Are we blaming ourselves? Are we blaming our family?” Your emotions might also be bound up in your partner’s socioeconomic status — they might have more financial privilege than you do, or vice-versa.

Then, try to verbalize these feelings to your partner using “I” statements, such as “I feel a lot of guilt for carrying debt and bringing it into this partnership,” Nobrega suggests. If diving straight into your emotions seems daunting, try talking about finances in a general sense instead. Talk about how you handle your finances, and ask your partner how they handle theirs. Whatever approach you take, though, “it starts with us first,” Nobrega says. If you don’t understand your own relationship with money, how can you build a financial future with someone else?

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Cultivate a practice of noticing other parts of your life that trigger the same emotions as debt does. Since we carry a lot of trauma, feelings, and past experiences in our bodies, one way to do this is to pinpoint where in your body you feel the emotions that debt brings up, Nobrega tells Mic. “The body often tells us a lot about ourselves that we maybe don’t have the words for.”

Meditation and mindfulness can allow you to get in touch with these embodied emotions, as well as those you might be holding onto subconsciously. Journaling can help, too, Nobrega adds. Dig deep to find where else these emotions have come up, which may be as far back as your past relationships or even childhood.

Identifying the trauma that might underlie your emotions around debt, as well as other parts of your life, is important for a number of reasons, Nobrega says. Firstly, it allows you to normalize what happened in your past and its effects on your present. In general, “there are really good reasons that people are in debt,” Nobrega says. “A lot of us are in that position.” These days, for example, not many people can enroll in higher education without incurring debt.

And since relationships tend to bring out insecurities and other things you might’ve been unaware of, “doing the work on your own self and identifying any past traumas you’ve had to be the healthiest version of yourself is going to be healthier for you and your relationships,” Nobrega says. The more you can sit with and explore your discomfort, the better positioned you’ll be to have hard conversations with your partner, not only about money, but also marriage, parenting, all that fun stuff.

That said, “I think it’s important to recognize that might not be the goal for everyone,” Nobrega says. “Some partners might be ok with having more separate, independent lives when it comes to finances.”

Ultimately, you may decide not to tell your partner about your debt, Nobrega says. If you have a partner from a more privileged socioeconomic group than you, for instance, you might understandably worry that they’ll judge you or can’t empathize with your situation. Having a more general conversation that covers questions like how finances will show up in your relationship, or whether you’ll each be responsible for your own debt or shoulder it together, can help gauge your comfort level and boundaries around disclosing your debt to your partner.

“There’s no right or wrong way,” Nobrega says. If you and your partner agree not to talk about finances, that’s totally fine, as long as you’re both cool with it, and it works for your relationship.

The process of practicing self-reflection and vulnerability with your partner is an ongoing one. If it sounds tough, that’s because it is — but if you and your partner want true intimacy in your relationship, then it may very well be worth it.