- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 3, 2009

NEW YORK — After almost 16 years of marriage, Unita Walburn and her husband had drifted apart. The stress of raising two special needs children had taken its toll and the couple were saddled with medical debt.

But rising food, gasoline and medical costs forced them to adopt a more frugal life. They cut their cable TV service, grew their own produce and spent more nights at home. As a result, the Walburns are slowly finding each other again.

“You’re not sitting in a room staring at a screen with 150 channels to watch,” said Mrs. Walburn, 40, a stay-at-home mother of three in Spotsylvania, Va. Instead, the family plays Scrabble and bakes. “When you simplify, it gives you an opportunity to do more things together.”

The financial stress of layoffs, foreclosures and declining portfolios can put a strain on any relationship. Even having to give up luxuries like gym memberships or dining out can be upsetting.

For some families, cutting back means spending more time at home. That gives family members an opportunity to reconnect.

Stephanie Smith, a psychologist in Erie, Colo., said a lot of her patients who cut their entertainment budgets have been pleasantly surprised by the joys of staying at home. Something as simple as meal planning, grocery shopping and cooking and eating together can bring families closer, she said.

“If you go to a movie with your family, that’s family time and that can be very fun, but you’re not interacting with each other,” she said. “If you are at home, playing Monopoly or checkers, you are face to face, talking, interacting.”

Audra Krell, 39, a mother of three in Scottsdale, Ariz., said her family is spending more quality time together. To save on gasoline, they’re driving less and not going their separate ways so often.

The family used to eat out three to six times a week. Now Tuesday night is panini night - her 16-year-old makes custom paninis and her two youngest sons make dessert. “Staycations” have replaced their usual four to six big vacations a year.

“Over three-day weekends and holidays, we sleep in, cook breakfast together and see movies together,” said Mrs. Krell, a freelance writer whose work has been slow. Her husband is chief financial officer for iMemories, a startup company that has not achieved its expected growth. “We are even closer than when we used to frequently vacation together.”

Spending time together is one of the benefits of not having the money to go out.

It’s something therapists recommend even when financial stress isn’t a factor, said Katherine Muller, a clinical psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. She suggests activities like cooking, going to the park or taking walks.

Although more time at home gives families a chance to reconnect, economic hardship can tear them apart. It’s too early to tell how the economy is affecting divorce rates, but divorce lawyers surveyed by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers said they see less divorce during economic downturns by a 2-1 margin.

Whether a relationship thrives or fails under economic duress depends on its strength before financial turmoil, the magnitude of the stress and whether the two people can adjust, said Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families and a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

Duration also has an effect, said Allison Pugh, a University of Virginia sociologist. The longer economic pain lasts, the less it will feel like a “fun camping vacation,” she said.

For families in conflict over money, Miss Muller suggests finding an activity that’s inherently pleasant - perhaps watching a funny movie or playing a board game - where the focus is on that activity rather than direct interaction.

“Don’t assume bonding will happen automatically,” Miss Coontz said. “Families really need to make an effort to appreciate the good things that are going on in their lives.”

Some families are doing that - and learning more about one another other in the process.

Danny Godfrey, 23, a marketing coordinator in Pittsburgh, said he has fallen for his live-in girlfriend in a new way since trading nights out for nights in. They make meals together, have water fights with the kitchen sprayer and dance around the house.

“We actually talk instead of just experiencing stuff together,” he said.

Mrs. Krell said she is grateful, in a way, for the tough times: “There isn’t much to cling to in these uncertain times, but I will always know that due to the poor economy, my family became closer.”

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