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Growing UK debt puts further strain on family relationships

By OnePlusOne, 31 January 2013 Poverty, Stress

This week sees the release of The Office for National Statistics Wealth and Assets Survey; unsurprisingly the picture it paints is a somewhat gloomy one. The burden of debt on UK families is now undoubtedly a real cause for concern for couples and families, as well as those working with them in terms of both the stress it places on mental health and relationships and how best to support.

The survey examined the changes in household borrowing and related debt in the years 2006-08, when the UK entered recession, and 2008-10. It found that the average household had £3,200 debt in credit cards, overdrafts or loans as the recession took hold.

The Survey shows that just over half of households have some type of debt either on credit cards, overdrafts or fixed-term loans – mortgages were not included. The total burden of these debts rose by 10.3% between 2006-08 and 2008-10.

The survey highlighted that far from being a cavalier society with a ‘Buy Now Pay Later’ attitude, half of households surveyed felt these debts placed a huge personal burden on them.

Of course, finding that high numbers of families are feeling stressed in the current climate was to be expected. Families have seen both their incomes and means to alter their situation deteriorate over the last few years while living costs have risen. It is this combination which is putting many families under strain.

The feeling of powerlessness this places on couples has a significant impact on the quality of family relationships. Many couples are struggling to manage the combination of fear of redundancy, long working hours, strain in their relationship and a range of stress related illnesses.

Unsurprisingly the poorest households say they are most likely to feel burdened–the survey reports that these families were 13 times more likely to see their financial debt as a heavy burden than the richest households.

Most worryingly for the future of family life is that those households headed by younger people were the ones that owed the most. Married or cohabiting couples under the state pension age with no children owe an average of £5,500 compared to single parent households who owe £1,600.

With so many families experiencing these significant levels of debt and living on a reduced income, there is an impact on not being able to afford even the day-to-day essentials, let alone spare money to enjoy life or take a much needed holiday. As a result, stress, mental health and behavioural problems such as excessive drinking may increase. Consequently, arguments between couples may increase and support for each other wane, resulting in unhappier and more stressful relationships.

Moreover, children may be affected by their parents’ difficulties. Research has shown a strong link between poor parental relationships, distracted parenting, and poorer outcomes for children. Plus there are specific difficulties related to arguments regarding money which suggests that this is likely to be a problem for these children.

And when divorce and separation becomes unaffordable many couples may need to remain in the same home together, with consequences for both adults involved and the impact of these tensions on their children.

Many couples and families will continue to need additional support and advice if they are to maintain resilience and manage the wide ranging issues associated with these tough economic times. If you are a practitioner working with families affected by debt OnePlusOne would like to hear from you. How are you managing to support them, and what are you seeing in terms of the impacts on relationships?

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