An $80,000 Debt Almost Broke Us Up—Here's What Saved Us
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In case you haven’t heard, there’s a debt crisis in this country. Around 40 million Americans have student loans, and staggering numbers aren’t making payments. What’s more, U.S. credit card debt is set to hit $1 trillion this year.

With numbers that massive, debt can feel almost like an abstract concept. But it’s not when you and the person you love are dealing with it. I know. My boyfriend Jordan* and I had more than $100,000 in debt combined when we moved in together after college in 2011.

My payments have been manageable—and I’m still steadily working through a $20,000 student loan balance—but my boyfriend wasn’t nearly as lucky. He owed almost $80,000. While much of it consisted of student loans that wouldn’t hurt his credit, he also owed thousands to various credit card companies for incidentals like books, airfare to and from school and winter boots.

The first few years out of college, we both worked insane hours and barely saw each other. It never occurred to us to to find less-demanding jobs, since debt—especially Jordan’s—always hung over us. For two young people newly in the adult workforce, it felt like the only way. But even after landing a job that should have made Jordan feel secure, he never felt comfortable. Even with our tiny apartment and regular meals of quinoa and hot sauce, repaying his debt drained his bank account to zero every single month.

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I certainly wasn’t swimming in money, but my lower monthly payments gave me a cushion that he didn’t have. I wanted to help him, but he said that being indebted to me as well would have been too much to bear.

The stress of his debt sometimes felt like a third, uninvited person in our relationship. We fought all the time. To be clear: I didn’t resent that he had the debt. I deeply respected how hard he’d worked. But I resented that no matter what I did—from trying to talk it out to offering to send checks to his creditors—I couldn’t seem to help. And it was frustrating for him that I couldn’t understand what he was going through. Simply deciding what takeout to order would send us into a shouting match if I suggested a restaurant with a slightly higher delivery minimum, not realizing that to him, any extra cost was unthinkable.

Beyond the small, individual fights, it was impossible to ignore that the emotional weight of his debt was crushing him, and he couldn’t get it out of his head. When I talked, I could see that he was trying to listen, but juggling his debt stress at the same time.

Eventually, it got easier to just stop talking. Though we’d always been able to communicate about issues I know can challenge other couples—complicated family situations, ambition and future plans—it seemed like we’d met an obstacle we couldn’t overcome. I’d never felt more lonely.

Finally, one night, he came home from work and told me we needed to talk. Every muscle in my body tensed, but he launched into a talk that wasn’t “we’re over,” but “we need to fix this, together.” So we sat down and laid everything out.

Click on the next page for more on how we tackled it.

August 23, 2016

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