Debt and redemption
As suggested above, debt and debt management were crucial practical elements in the lives of these recently ‘married’ couples. Also, debt can shape future practices and has the power to distort aspects of relationships. Debt, of course, has strong moral connotations in cultures that are still influenced by a Protestant ethic and distaste for all forms of financial indebtedness except for mortgages. Although there appear to be generational changes occurring in this cultural attitude, especially with the ubiquitousness of credit card debt, debt still has an element of opprobrium surrounding it. It is this quality, which can in turn attach itself to persons, that we explore here. It is our argument that debt is not just a practical issue but also a site of conflicting values and moral worth in relationships.
We noted above that debt for our young couples was mainly acquired through processes of being a student or through ‘reckless’ spending at a specific time in the past. Of course, these two things could overlap, but the person who acquires a debt in pursuit of education in a climate where it is almost impossible to avoid loans and overdrafts is subject to less opprobrium than the spender who is deemed to be reckless. In addition to this moral calculus pertaining to how debts are accumulated, there is the issue of how debts are or have been managed. So the person who has had a student loan (and hence debt) but who gets organised to pay it back is in a different position to the person who goes on accumulating debt or who lives as if there is no debt. It was clear, too, from many of the stories of living with debts, that very few people did not care about indebtedness – but this did not mean that they could find a way out of debt and some spoke of simply not being able to cope with the enormity of it.
Given this backdrop, debt can be seen to bring emotional baggage into relationships as well as potential value judgements, and these features can also contribute to how couples relate to one another. In particular, a theme which became very apparent among those who had racked up debts in the past was what we refer to as the redemption story. Those who had debts framed their relationships with their partners as ones based on redemption: they were once lost but now are saved through the good housekeeping of a more stable or sensible partner. There was a narrative of both being saved and being grateful, sometimes combined with accounts of becoming a different (i. e. better) person through the guidance of the more mature partner. These stories were not gendered in the sense that both men and women would rehearse this same narrative, but there was a strong sense of seeing their partner as saviour, protector or even parent when it came to money matters:
[Laughs] Money – I’m one of these people that, you get people that save and have investments and bonds and everything like that and I just, I just like if you’ve got the money now then spend it now. I know that – part of me, a little bit of my head niggles and says ‘Oh I should really think about a rainy day and think of the future’ but right now we’re – we are kind of struggling for money at the moment but I’m not at work. I’m still on, I’m on additional maternity leave so get paid so – Annabel tends to do all the money things. She does take that role on doesn’t she, the protector?
And I was in a hell of a lot of debt that caused me and Neil you know no amount of torture; Neil just thinking I was just being a moody, depressive bastard, and me knowing deep down that I just wasn’t coping. Em, so money to me is this terrible thing that you apparently have to have to get through life. Fortunately, Neil’s incredibly good with money so it’s not such an issue for us as a couple because there’s somebody [laughs] who’s sensible.
Escaping from debt, starting to budget, and even beginning to save money were seen by the majority of our respondents as part of ‘settling down’ or at least becoming mature and starting to live a more sensible life. Much of this narrative drift reflects the ‘stage’ that young partners perceived themselves to have reached where they mostly felt that they had gone through an immature single phase and were now, with the help of a grounded partner, entering into a less frenetic or less worrying period. As discussed in Chapter 4, these respondents did tend to reflect on their lives in terms of stages and, as part of this, the way in which money came to be disciplined formed part of their critical transition. Becoming a person who could manage money, or at least one who could see their own limitations with money, marked a transition of the self which was brought about through their relationship. The idea of redemption sits uneasily with the formal principles of an equal relationship, however, and it is not clear whether the potential imbalance created would always be easily managed.