For many couples, financial troubles can be the ultimate test of their relationship. Effective communication over financial stress is often key to overcoming this trying issue. In a new study, researchers from North Carolina State University examined techniques to overcome financial uncertainties within romantic relationships, uncovering which are most effective in both solving the issue at hand and maintaining healthy lines of communication.

“Regardless of income level, I found that couples are uncertain about money — whether that’s how to put food on the table or whether to sell a second home,” said Lynsey Romo, assistant professor of communication at NC State and lead author of the study, in a recent press release. “During tough financial times, communication can help people cope.”

To conduct the study, Romo and a team of researchers interviewed 40 individuals, either married or living together, during the economic recession. When it came to financial issues, researchers found that uncertainty was the key factor that determined decisions. According to the Uncertainty Management Theory, doubt is almost always seen as negative, compelling individuals to cope with the burden of not knowing by either actively seeking out information or avoiding a painful truth altogether. In all these instances, though, communication was essential in dealing with uncertainty, and how this burden would affect a relationship. Most couples had three general strategies to cope when faced with financial uncertainty: reducing it, maintaining it, or adapting to it.

Reducing Uncertainty

The first management technique, which researchers also found to be the most common, was reducing uncertainty through investigating the problem. Most couples found that the easiest way to deal with their financial issues was to find more information about how they could rectify the situation, which would give them a better idea about how to move forward. To get this information, participants either took to the web or contacted a financial advisor. Others found it beneficial to confide in friends or family members, while the remaining few worked with the info they had gotten from similar situations in the past, when money was scarce.

Most found the easiest way to reduce uncertainty was through a good talk with their partner. The researchers found that when participants were able to talk things out with their partner, they were able to solve problems better and bridge potential conflicts. Communication techniques seemed to vary, just as managing uncertainty did. Some people found it easiest to “strategically communicate,” or speak to their partner in a way that appealed most to their personality. Meanwhile, others adopted a team mentality, finding that if they delegated responsibilities and tackled their debt as a unit, it was easier to deal with.

Maintaining Uncertainty

For some couples, ignorance was most certainly bliss, as they preferred to stay in the dark about the severity of their financial situations. Romo claimed that about 11 participants wanted to avoid the topic of their waning funds altogether, refraining from thinking or speaking about financial stress. For example, one participant refused to talk about potentially having to sell her home, saying, “I like to keep my worries to myself because it’s like the ‘ostrich effect,’ if you don’t want to talk about it, it doesn’t exist.”

Other participants evaded their problems by focusing on the positives of life instead, centering their attention on small things that made them happy. There was even one man who said avoiding financial responsibility had an element of excitement— renting properties for retirement money as opposed to having a 401k made things a bit more thrilling.

Adapting to Uncertainty

Researchers said this technique was similar to the coping mechanisms of those with a chronic illness. Rather than worrying about things you cannot control, participants accepted them as a part of life, and took things one step at a time. Five participants in the study said that they and their significant others would turn to religion in times of need, finding that their spirituality gave them a sense of guidance. One woman said that praying for her and her husband kept the stress levels down, and made them less eager to fight over their troubles.

Others who did not focus on religion said that they were able to help reduce stress by focusing on one day at a time, and only preoccupying themselves with the things they knew they could control. This helped couples restore a sense of balance to their lives, and prevented a chaotic financial situation from dismantling it.

The Most Common Issues

When it came down to it, a majority of couples ran into roadblocks, regardless of the method they used to deal with financial stress. One of the biggest issues most couples had was mostly with information; either too much information, or not enough information made financial pressures difficult to discuss with their partner, which led to conflict. Romo says this has a lot to do with not learning about finances at a young age. When financial information is kept from children, as it often is, they have a more difficult time speaking about it in adulthood.

On the most basic level, some couples just didn’t want to talk about finances with their partner. Some also had trouble starting a dialogue because they were not comfortable with conversations about money or they lacked information about the topic. Communication problems were also often a product of time management issues, which resulted from couples having mismatching schedules and therefore no time to talk.

Finally, the researchers observed that an individual’s background often contributed to how they went about dealing with financial pressures. For instance, one participant did not want his wife to revert to food stamps because of how his family negatively perceived them growing up. Others with newfound wealth often ran into financial troubles due to reckless spending — a result of not knowing how to manage large amounts of money when younger.

Overall, Romo and her team feel that their study sheds some light on how important financial literacy — fully understanding financial dealings and how to discuss them — is within the contexts of relationships. “The biggest takeaway here is that there are things people can do to help deal with financial uncertainty,” she said. “Seeking out information, talking about money with your partner, working as a team, and becoming financially literate can reduce uncertainty — and the related stress that uncertainty can cause in a relationship.”

Source: Romo L, et al. An Examination of How People in Romantic Relationships Use Communication to Manage Financial Uncertainty. Journal of Applied Communication Research. 2015.