Did you and your spouse buy a home in recent years using an adjustable-rate mortgage that started with an affordable "teaser rate"? Are you now facing a whopping increase in your monthly payments due to an upward adjustment in your ARM? Are you even fearful of foreclosure?
If so, this financial crisis -- coupled with the overall economic downturn -- could be exerting tremendous stress on your marriage. However, there are many ways to shield your relationship from harm, says Robert Scuka, a therapist and executive director of the National Institute of Relationship Enhancement (www.nire.org).
"The financial pressures on couples are now substantial. But money problems aren't likely to lead to divorce -- if your relationship is fundamentally sound," Scuka says.
Those who take proactive steps to protect their marriages are the most likely to make their way through a rough patch unscathed, he says.
"You need to get on the same page to come up with a plan for handling your financial issues," says Scuka, whose nonprofit organization focuses on teaching couples how to keep their relationships strong and resolve problems without severing their ties.
He urges couples who are nervous about their mortgage payments, or other financial issues, to avoid faulting each other.
"Blame causes communication to break down," Scuka says.
Here are several pointers for couples trying to navigate choppy financial waters:
Consider attending a relationship workshop.
When you and your spouse are going through a money crisis, it might seem like a waste of time and money to attend a workshop on fundamental relationship skills. On the other hand, Scuka says, such a workshop could give you the problem-solving methods needed to work through your predicament.
Scuka's organization offers two-day workshops that teach couples such basic techniques as conflict management and behavior change. Participants can use the workshop exercises to focus on real-life issues, such as a mortgage problem.
As he points out, the marriage education movement is growing rapidly and an increasing number of workshops, run by both secular and religious organizations, are now available. You can learn about a variety of these programs through the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education (www.smartmarriages.com), founded by Diane Sollee.
Read books that can help strengthen your relationship.
Books are no substitute for the lessons you'll receive in a workshop. But they can provide valuable insights as you work on thorny financial issues.
One newly published manual used in workshops is "Mastering the Mysteries of Love," co-authored by Mary Ortwein and Bernard Guerney, Jr., pioneers in the relationship-enhancement field. It can be obtained by visiting www.skillswork.org.
Another useful book is "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work," by research psychologist John M. Gottman. It is available through online booksellers or the Gottman Institute (www.gottman.com).
Select marriage counseling with care.
If you've been married for a number of years and have gone through hard times in the past, as many couples have, you may still harbor lingering resentments resulting from your arguments. Perhaps you let your emotions get the best of you and were harshly critical of each other, or maybe you stonewalled after a fight. Either can limit your ability to communicate in the present.
Scuka says a couple may need marriage counseling to regain the trust required to resolve their financial issues as a unified team.
One source for referrals that Scuka recommends is the National Registry of Marriage Friendly Therapists (www.marriagefriendlytherapists.com). This organization helps prospective clients by ensuring that the therapists on their list are rigorously screened.
Scuka says there are solid reasons to spend extra time in search of skillful counseling. Ill-trained therapists can do more harm than good to your relationship and malpractice is not uncommon.
Quality marriage counseling can be expensive. If money is a pressing issue for you and your spouse -- as it is for many people with mortgage problems -- be sure that the counselors you're considering are willing to work on a sliding scale. This means they'll reduce their fees to take your financial situation into account.
Look to financial counseling for help with your mortgage problems.
Perhaps you and your partner have a well-functioning relationship. Yet you're searching for strategies to reduce your monthly housing costs and avert foreclosure. In that case, you may wish to go straight to a financial planner or housing counselor who can help you sort through your options.
One source for short-term financial planning is the Garrett Planning Network (www.garrettplanningnetwork.com). For a low- or no-cost housing counselor, you can go to the Web site of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (www.hud.gov) or call HUD's toll-free counseling and referral line: (800) 569-4287.
For those who must sharply curtail their spending to keep their homes, Scuka recommends Debtors Anonymous, an organization for people trying to reduce their debt loads and regain solvency through a major alteration of their buying habits (www.debtorsanonymous.org).
Couples who get their finances in order and operate as a team may be able to keep their homes by refinancing from a high-cost adjustable-rate mortgage to a lower cost fixed-rate loan.
Realize you're not alone in grappling with tough home-finance issues.
Because of the upheaval in the housing markets -- as well as turbulence on Wall Street -- thousands of Americans have already turned in their house keys or had their homes taken away. And more are expected to face the same outcomes in the near future.
You may be unable to save your house from foreclosure. But, ideally, the conflicts associated with your rough housing transition will not also cost you your relationship, Ortwein says.
"The economic situation today is putting a huge strain on couples and families. But you don't want an ugly financial problem to turn your personal life ugly, too," she says.
To contact Ellen James Martin, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.