The COVID-19 pandemic has hit many people hard not just physically but also financially. During times of financial strain, it’s all too easy for our time, attention, and effort to be focused on finances and just getting by. Sometimes this is all we can do. But research shows that for the sake of our relationships, it’s so important to intentionally make time, attention, and effort for each other and our relationships. In fact, we can use these stressful times to catalyst us toward better relationships.

I am a family finance researcher at the University of Arizona. Just as the current pandemic began to spread around the world, some colleagues and I published an article in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues on how couple relationships can thrive during times of financial stress.

This study was inspired by one of my favorite family science theories (the family adjustment and adaptation response model) and the idea (called “bonadaptation”) that stressors can be catalysts for positive growth. In other words, on an individual, couple, and family level, we can thrive not just in spite of stressors but because of them. Our study is one of several that has found research-based evidence for this idea. We found that sometimes couple relationships can thrive because of financial stress. Stressors are by nature difficult and can definitely take a toll on us personally as well as on our relationships, but bonadaptation should give us hope and inspire us to action.

In our study, we identified two things that help all couples experiencing financial stressors thrive in their relationships: doing daily relationship maintenance behaviors (actions which show love, respect, and affection for your partner) and receiving financial support from family or friends. We also found other things that help lower-income, unmarried couples specifically: having health insurance, having children with only one partner, reducing the number of financial stressors experienced, having a support network, and having a positive outlook on your relationship.

So what can you do to help your relationship thrive during a financially stressful time? Our research has found that it’s the little things, compounded over time, that can make the biggest difference. We call these things relationship maintenance behaviors because, just like the maintenance required to keep a car running smoothly, relationships don’t run great on their own — they require selfless effort. Relationship maintenance behaviors include physical affection, spending time together, verbal affection, and doing tasks together. Examples include cuddling/kissing/hugging/sex, going on a date, telling them “I love you,” making a meal together, doing a chore your partner usually does but doesn’t like to do, asking about their day and truly listening, thanking them for something specific they’ve done recently, etc. Look for small ways to show your partner you love and respect them, and go a bit out of your way to do things for them and prioritize them. These small, selfless actions are especially hard to do during times of stress, but that’s when it’s most important to do them.

There is no doubt that what we’re all going through right now is very difficult, especially for people experiencing financial stress. However, these research findings inspire me to change my perspective and think more positively about stressors and challenges that I experience, to try to see the silver lining. The findings also inspire me to put in the effort to turn hard times into opportunities for growth — to improve myself and my relationships. As you focus on what is in your control and the little things you can do for your partner, your relationship can thrive not just despite your stressful circumstances but even because of them.

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