“Recession-proofing” your marriage

03 Jan 2012, Posted by Melissa Thoma in Articles,Multi, No Comments.

“Recession-proofing” your marriage

By: Melissa Thoma   |   01/11/2012

We’ve all felt it—the cold chill of the economic meltdown now known as “The Great Recession.” The slow freeze of the economy has bitten almost all of us in one way or another. Some have put on their heavy winter wear and are waiting out the cold. Some have been fully exposed and suffered frostbite. Recovery is late and long, leaving us with the grim understanding that we have indeed lived through a notable event in modern history.

All this has me thinking about those periods of cold in a marriage—those times when the relationship doesn’t break under the pressure, but instead grows chilly and lifeless. A marital recession doesn’t look that different to me from an economic one.

Webster’s defines a recession as “the act or action of receding; a departing procession, a period of reduced economic activity.” And as I’ve looked back at the “recession” eras of my 28-year marriage, those thoughts seem to describe the experience to a “T.”

The act or action of receding. When we think in terms of economics we know that a drop in the Gross Domestic Product—the input vs. output value of the economy—lasting at least two quarters, signals the beginning of a recession. And isn’t that the way it goes in marriage? You notice a period when each partner just doesn’t seem to have the energy or desire to put into the marriage the kind of attention and energy that will produce real Domestic Output—comfort, warmth, excitement, concern. The pressure on families these last few years has left so many of us with little to give at home. Your home life is on autopilot; you are going through the motions. There may not be any overt conflict in the house, but you just aren’t making the little efforts you used to.

The warning signs are small. We forget to kiss hello and goodbye. We go to bed at different times or get involved in computers and newspapers and go silent at breakfast or in the evening. There isn’t really anything to pin it on, except general life strain. Yet slowly the relationship cools.

A departing procession: I like this because it reminds me of some of the most productive and satisfying times in my marriage when Martin and I were deeply engaged in building our futures. We were visioning and planning. We were working on a budget or long-term goal. These sorts of activities drove our relationship forward in exciting ways. But life often has a way of intervening and taking our focus off each other. We’re left on the sidelines of the parade, distracted by the issues of the day, and when we look up again, we can just make out the backs of the marching band three blocks ahead. We’ve fallen behind.

A period of reduced economic activity. It’s funny, but when I find myself caught in marital recession, it does feel much like a down economy. We’re not investing in our relationship. We’re not “spending” time with each other. This isn’t the time when a romantic getaway sounds tempting. I’m more likely to long for a day in bed with the covers pulled over my head.

A marriage in crisis motivates many to act, to seek counseling or make a big life change. Marital recession doesn’t tend to incite these actions. After all nothing big is really wrong. We’ve just lost our way.

And just like we reduce our spending to the level of necessity over luxury, we’re tempted to just try to get by in our relationship without the extra, intentional effort.


Most economists cite two ways to fight recession, and I believe they are not bad suggestions for recessions of the marital sort: stimulus and investment. Once you’ve recognized and agreed that your relationship is receding, try stimulating progress through some invigorating and new goals and activities.

I’ve been a distance runner for ten years now. My daughter and I have trained for many races together, and I’ve always seen her as my perfect training partner. We are after all almost the same size and our pace and stride are nearly equal. However, in an attempt to keep Martin motivated to exercise regularly and prepare myself for an upcoming marathon without my daughter in town, Martin and I began training together.

We’ve been surprised by the spark this has added to our relationship. We use the running time to have deeper conversations. We compare notes on progress toward our personal goals. It’s a perfect time to ask each other for advice or support. And even though we aren’t perfect pace partners, we’ve discovered ways to overcome our differences. Martin often runs alongside me while rolling his bicycle until he has had enough, then will hop on his bike and act as my sag wagon. This little marital “stimulus” has been great for us.

Last year, we started feeling the pressure to get our budget house in order in preparation for our son’s approaching college tuition. We took a class on financial fundamentals and found that even that “stimulus” led to conversations, plans and a feeling of “together for better.”

We’ve never been great at the tried-and-true advice to have a weekly date night. But we’ve started purchasing season tickets to our theater, symphony and other local arts organizations. We find that this bit of structure “stimulates” us to make a date for dinner before or after the show.

It may not seem like much, but these little nudges back into the relationship have a big influence on the quality of the marriage.

And really investing in the relationship is key. Next fall, we’ll have an empty nest. I’m watching my friends navigate this transition with interest. Some are coming out from under their focus on parenting and realizing that they hadn’t really been investing in each other. For a few, the marital bank account has emptied. Relationally bankrupt, they are splitting up and starting over. Some are making major investments in counseling, communication and re-commitment to reclaim a healthy relationship.

Some are enjoying this time as a second honeymoon of sorts—enjoying the payout from wise investing along the way.

Recovery is possible in marital recession, but it may be slow—just like the tentative economic recovery our country is experiencing. As we move forward in 2012, my sincere wish is that we all feel the relief that comes with a healthy economy—and enjoy a wonderful expansionary period in our relationships. Especially our marriages!