Dear Therapist: I Won’t Marry Someone With a Mountain of Debt
After learning the full scope of my boyfriend’s finances, I don’t know if I should continue the relationship.
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I have been divorced for four years and have three children. My youngest is a senior in high school, and my middle child is in college. I have worked very hard to put my life back together after my divorce. I work full-time and own my own home, and I have worked with a financial planner to create a financial plan to ensure that my home is paid for before I retire. About a year ago, I was diagnosed with an aggressive autoimmune disorder that may not allow me to work as long as I had planned, so I have modified my budget accordingly.
I met my boyfriend online about a year ago. After 20 years in a marriage with a husband who was emotionally and physically abusive, I was so happy to meet someone who was so kind and caring. I have had an extremely hard time speaking up for myself or asking questions because of my marriage. My ex and my father were yellers, intolerant of opinions that didn’t align with theirs. I have been seeing a therapist and working on self-esteem issues.
My boyfriend’s wife had passed suddenly just under a year before we met. He has two adult children, a grandchild, and another grandchild on the way. About two months after we met, he shared that he had “large outstanding student loans” with no plan to ever repay them. I also noticed that he had bought an expensive car and expensive clothing, despite stating multiple times that he did not make much money. He also mentioned that he was upset that his daughter did not move into his house, because he was planning on her income to help share the bills.
I immediately freaked out. My gut was telling me to run, but I was worried about losing someone who seems like a really sweet guy. I really enjoy being with him, and we share many common values and interests other than spending habits. We talked, and he explained that his wife had managed the finances and that they had been “talked into” maxing out their student loans. He bought the new car because he could not bear to drive his wife’s car, although he said it was completely fine. I explained my fears, and he seemed to make some changes. He filed for student-loan forgiveness and sold his new car, but made what seemed like a quick decision on a used car that lowered his monthly payment very little.
He did not share the amount of his debt, and I did not ask. I have a sound understanding of finances and offered to help him or recommend blogs I found useful, but he did not take any interest. I know he was ashamed, and I did not want him to feel worse. We had agreed to take the relationship slow. We typically split the cost of any dates that we have.
Recently, he has been talking more about moving in together and marriage. I love him, but I do not want to take on his debt. Also, he has been buying expensive baby items for his grandchild and the coming baby. I have not said anything, because I figured it is his business. I had mentioned before to him that if we were married, his student-loan-repayment amount would likely increase. He did not respond. He also talked about planning vacations, but I had a feeling that he could not afford those, so I suggested other, low-cost options. He has been showing me possible houses we could move into together. I summoned all of my courage to ask the amount of his outstanding student loans and was shocked to learn that it was $130,000. If I hadn’t asked, I do not know when or how I would have found this out. He used to be a teacher and recently went back for a second graduate degree, and is in a position making about $50,000 a year. He did not share whether he has credit-card debt, and I did not have the guts to ask, but I have a feeling that he may.
I know that I should have asked for clarification on his debt picture before we had a chance to fall in love. Now, after learning the full scope of his debt, and considering his push to move in and get married despite agreeing to take things slow, I am terrified. Other than loan forgiveness and getting a roommate to help with expenses, he does not have a plan to manage his debt. I don’t doubt his love for me, but I do not want to be the roommate he finds to help with his expenses.
I do not know if I should continue the relationship or end it. I am fine with dating, but I’m not fine with marrying someone with a mountain of debt and no plan to make any lifestyle and spending changes to manage the debt.
Money is a topic that can evoke intense emotions; as a result, it’s a source of disagreement in many relationships. We all come into our adult relationships with feelings about money that we might not even be aware of. The way money was handled in our family of origin tends to shape our values (money is “good” or “bad”), attitude (relaxed or anxious), spending habits (what’s “worth” saving or purchasing), and ideas about what money represents (love, guilt, shame, burden, power, freedom, security).
On top of this, money can be difficult to talk about in our culture. Even between close friends who discuss “everything,” how much one earns can be off-limits. Because open conversations about money are socially taboo, most people don’t have experience talking about it until they’re forced to, such as when they’re considering living together or getting married. But many people also come into relationships without the communication skills necessary to broach sensitive issues more generally, making the task of discussing money with a partner doubly challenging.
So let’s start with the communication piece. I can understand your reluctance to ask questions given your past experiences with both a father and an ex-husband who yelled when you attempted to speak up, and you’ve carried that hesitance into your current relationship. In your letter, you mention several instances in which you had concerns but were too afraid to voice them: First, when your boyfriend said he was in debt, and you refrained from asking the amount. Second, when you saw him buying items you didn’t believe he could afford, and you figured it was “his business.” Third, when your boyfriend offered no response to your comment about his student loans increasing should you marry, and you chose not to ask for one. Fourth, when he suggested taking a vacation you felt he couldn’t afford, and you suggested other options without directly sharing your concern. Fifth, when he revealed the amount of his student-loan debt, and you suspected additional credit-card debt but “didn’t have the guts to ask.”
I’m flagging these interactions to help you see that although you’re no longer with a person who yells, you still shut yourself down. What do you imagine will happen if you ask for more information? The one time you did, your boyfriend answered your question and even seemed amenable to change (he sold the car and filed for student-loan forgiveness). So what is the fear? That he won’t like talking about this? He might not, but people in successful long-term relationships learn to tolerate the discomfort. That he’ll get irritated and leave you? I don’t see any evidence of that from your earlier conversation, but even if he does, that’s useful information in and of itself. That you’ll learn something that will make you anxious about the relationship? Possibly, but you’re already anxious from the not knowing. You might want to reflect on what’s underneath this avoidance in the current situation and make sure you aren’t conflating people from the past with your boyfriend in the present—because you’re going to need to have a conversation.
I often suggest to couples that before sitting down to talk about money or any highly sensitive topic, they try writing down what they want to say so that when they do have the conversation, they don’t get flustered and can stay on track. In your case, you might write down what your worries are, followed by a list of what would help alleviate them. It could look something like this:
Worries About Marriage If You Remain in Debt With No Plan to Pay It Off
- I’ll lose my sense of security that I worked so hard for, and this loss will make me feel resentful.
- Your choices will affect our lifestyle, such as what kind of house we get and where we go on vacation, as well as my ability to work less and take care of my health needs now and to retire earlier than I had planned given my medical situation.
- If your behavior affects my finances, I might not be able to help my children in the ways that are important to me, such as paying for their college or helping them with a down payment when they want to purchase a home.
- I won’t trust you with money, and I’ll start to feel more like your parent than your partner, which could create conflict and weaken our emotional connection.
Needs I Have If We Move In Together or Get Married
- You will work with a financial planner to create a budget and a concrete strategy that allows you to pay off your debt and live within your means, and you will follow through on this daily.
- We will keep our finances separate (and/or I will manage the finances, and/or we will both hire an outside party to do this and meet with this person monthly, and/or we will meet with an attorney and create a comprehensive prenuptial agreement so I am not at risk).
- If you go over our agreed-upon budget, you will stop using credit cards and use only cash.
- Should I continue to make more money than you, we need to have clarity on what each of us will contribute to the joint expenses.
- There must be full transparency about spending and debt, and we will both talk openly about money on a regular basis.
These are just suggestions, but the point is, until you and your boyfriend agree on some financial parameters, nothing is going to alleviate your fear of moving forward. The only way to see if you can get on the same page is to bring your feelings and needs about money out in the open and see how he responds.
This kind of conversation will also be helpful for creating space to honestly discuss other issues in your relationship, such as where he is in the grieving process (he met you shortly after his wife suddenly died, which might be informing the pace at which he wants to get married again), how living with an aggressive autoimmune disease affects each of you, how your history makes it important to take things slow and ensure that your needs are prioritized, and what you can both do to foster a relationship in which, instead of avoiding uncomfortable conversations, you learn to bring them up early and often.
Remember, too, that he seems to have very different views about money than you do (and a different level of experience with or interest in it, given that his wife took care of their finances), and you’ll need to see how much you both can bridge the gap and navigate the disparity. For instance, you say that you’re fine with dating but not with marrying him if the current situation continues, and he might need to compromise on his desire to move in with and marry you, and settle for a dating-only relationship in separate homes if he chooses not to change the way he handles money. Similarly, you might decide that a certain number of changes on his part bring you in close-enough alignment to move forward (while still legally protecting yourself, of course), even if you’d prefer, in an ideal world, that he were more naturally like you with money management.
Lastly, I should mention that we all come into relationships with baggage of some sort (difficult family members, childhood experiences, medical conditions, personality quirks), and a sad reality is that in today’s world, a great number of people are saddled for decades with significant student-loan debt. The potential deal-breaker isn’t so much the baggage—in this case, the debt—as it is whether you can agree as a team on how to handle it. Someone who won’t discuss it, or who says he’ll make changes but doesn’t follow through, or who has no interest in making the daily changes you need—any of this should give you pause. What you’re essentially asking for is safety, trust, and security—and having this conversation, no matter what the outcome, will provide that.
Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.