- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 8, 2009

An empty wallet does not a happy couple make. Historically, domestic violence and divorce rates tend to move upward as the economy moves downward.

While it's too early to tell whether that's the case in this recession - and whether more couples are seeing therapists and/or using anti-depressant medication - couples therapists nationwide report that the recession has become a major source of dissonance for couples.

”I see a definite increase in stress related to the recession,” says Linda Carter, a psychologist in private practice in New York City and professor in psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. “It causes an intensification of the problems that already exist.”

For example, Ms. Carter says, a husband who is irritated by his wife's spendthrift habits in good times may see that irritation exacerbated in bad times when money is extra tight. That can lead to a heated argument and - voila - blame is hurled back and forth like a game of toxic catch.

How to put an end to this particular type of blame game?

Context is key, says Peter Fehrenbach, a psychologist in private practice in Seattle.

“Acknowledging that job losses and diminishing savings are common problems rather than someone's fault helps,” Mr. Fehrenbach says. “You try to objectify the problem.”

Mr. Fehrenbach says money - or the lack thereof - has become a major source of stress for up to half of the couples he sees.

They're not alone.

A recent Gallup-Healthways poll of more than 350,000 people shows that stress related to the bad economy increased significantly in the last quarter of 2008. The poll showed that whenever the stock market went down late last fall, respondents experienced increased levels of stress.

That's no surprise to Mike Fitzpatrick, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“None of us - unless you lived through the Great Depression - has ever experienced anything like this,” Mr. Fitzpatrick says.

Not having experienced it - and its eventual resolution - we can't take comfort in personal knowledge and experience that things will be OK in the end. That uncertainty causes stress.

“No one sees the end of the tunnel,” Mr. Fitzpatrick says.

If anything, things are getting worse. In March, the nationwide unemployment rate reached a 25-year high as more than 12 million Americans were unemployed.

Against this backdrop of a worsening economy and the increase in stress it fosters, many Americans are seeking mental health care for the first time, Mr. Fitzpatrick says.

When money is tight, though, options might seem limited. However, Dr. Nada Stotland, a psychiatrist and president of the American Psychiatric Association, encourages people to think outside the box: If there is no money for traditional counseling, try clergy or family physicians.

“Getting help is not an indulgence,” Dr. Stotland says. “It's a necessity.”

Diane Sollee, founder and director for the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education (smartmarriages.com), encourages couples to think about attending marriage-education seminars to learn how to communicate better in good times and bad times.

”I worry that help for the marriage will become 'a luxury item,' ” Ms.Sollee says. “But there are a lot of good, affordable - some are even free - options out there.”

Ideally, instead of that toxic game of catch, a relationship can serve as a resource during tough times. But, says Ms. Carter, the New York City psychologist, it takes a little conscious thought and action:

m Reconnect with your spouse daily for at least 20 minutes. Make sure all media - including hand-held devices - are turned off. The 20-minute conversation has to be intentional, without intrusions.

m Try to increase small acts of pleasure. Go out for a walk together or write unexpected, sweet Post-it notes for your spouse to find in a drawer or on a bathroom mirror.

m Navigate conflict. Don't try to resolve issues in heated moments. The brain can't process information properly in a fight-or-flight moment. Instead, set up an appointment to talk.

m Say and do five positive things for every negative comment or action to restore a positive balance, a method made popular by renowned couples therapist and founder of the Gottman Institute, John Gottman.

m Don't keep secrets about money, particularly when it's tight. In a team, there is no room for blame and shame.

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