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Updated on Thursday, September 19, 2019
For relationship partners, dishonesty about spending and debt is known as financial infidelity. While partners may be uncomfortable talking about money, keeping secrets can be far more damaging to the relationship. This can lead to devastating scenarios and even bankruptcy, as well as relationship conflicts as severe as breakups and divorce.
A MagnifyMoney study found that 21% of divorced U.S. adults report that money issues ended their marriages, and overspending was the top issue among respondents. This type of infidelity adds another layer of damage because it constitutes a betrayal of trust.
“Financial infidelity does not give us trust and safety with our partner,” said Dr. Bonnie Eaker Weil, Ph.D., psychotherapist and author of “Financial Infidelity: 7 Steps to Conquering the #1 Relationship Wrecker.” “There’s no such thing as an okay financial fib. Any time you do a financial fib, that is a form of cheating.”
That being said, there are varying degrees of financial infidelity, and the intent is not always malicious. Here’s how to handle it in your own relationship.
Financial infidelity: How people lie about money
There are a number of ways that people can be dishonest about money with their partner. Here are some types of financial infidelity to watch out for.
Hiding large purchases
This occurs when one partner buys something out of the ordinary that is more expensive and exceeds any personal spending limits the couple has agreed upon. These purchases are usually eventually uncovered by the other partner, said Jennifer Dunkle, a financial therapist and licensed professional counselor.
Spending money on the kids
A 2018 study about financial infidelity published in the Journal of Financial Therapy found that one of the most common types of dishonest spending is money spent on the couple’s children without agreement or knowledge from the other parent, said Dr. Michelle Jeanfreau, Ph.D., associate professor, licensed marriage and family therapist and the author of the study. While this might seem relatively benign or well-intentioned, it’s still a form of dishonesty, and it warrants a closer look into your finances.
“If you aren’t talking about spending, then maybe that’s a sign that you need to be talking about spending,” said Jeanfreau.
Hiding accounts or restricting access to accounts
It’s okay to keep separate accounts from your partner as long as you are in agreement about spending limits, according to Justus Morgan, certified financial planner and vice president of Financial Service Group.
But if your partner has an account that you don’t know about or refuses to give you the password to oversee an account, that’s a form of financial infidelity. You and your partner are a team, so even if one of you is more comfortable managing your finances, you should both have access to all of your financial information.
Lying about prices or sales
Maybe your partner comes home with a new purchase, and instead of hiding it from you altogether, they lie about the price they paid. Or, perhaps they say they bought it on sale when they actually paid full price.
These are both common lies that emerged during the previously mentioned 2018 study. While it may not seem as malicious as hiding a purchase, lying about price still creates dishonesty in a relationship.
Why people lie about money
In the 2018 study, some participants identified acts of financial infidelity they’d committed but didn’t admit to having been financially unfaithful. Jeanfreau said that could be because they don’t realize that their small secret or lie is actually a form of financial infidelity that can be damaging to their relationship. Another possibility, she said, is that they don’t think there’s anything wrong with this type of infidelity.
In a new study authored by Jeanfreau that is under review, researchers identified two common reasons why people commit financial infidelity. One motive for lying may be avoiding a money argument, while another reason is that people want to spend on themselves. Both motivations can indicate underlying problems with a relationship, Jeanfreau said. She also noted that some people may lie to minimize their own insecurities about spending or budgeting if they feel they don’t know how to self-spend within reason.
How to uncover financial infidelity in your relationship
So, how do you find out if your partner is keeping secrets from you? Morgan suggests looking at tax returns and credit reports together annually. It’s a healthy habit for any couple, and it should reveal missing income that was spent on a hidden purchase, as well as any credit card accounts opened without one partner’s knowledge.
If you’re concerned more immediately, you may want to ask your partner to review bank statements, credit card statements or other financial statements together. If your spouse isn’t willing to provide these statements, that should raise a red flag, said Morgan.
What causes financial infidelity?
The outcomes of this type of infidelity can range from running up a credit card to bankruptcy to even divorce. So, you’ll want to know what aspects of a relationship can make financial infidelity more likely.
Eaker Weil said opposites attract to begin with, and a saver often attracts a spender and vice-versa; this can create a dynamic ripe for conflict, so understanding your differences is key. She also said that financial infidelity often arises from a lack of empathy or affection for one another: “We use money to hide when we can’t find our partner’s heart very often.”
Both Dunkle and Morgan pointed to a power imbalance as a factor that can increase the likelihood of dishonesty. When one of the spouses is more controlling about money decisions — especially if the spouse earns more and has the attitude that it’s their money — that can create an unhealthy dynamic, Morgan said.
Preventing financial infidelity
Morgan said one of the keys to establishing a healthy relationship around money is to recognize that everyone has different experiences when it comes to money, and that family upbringing often teaches us how to deal with money when we lack more formal instruction.
Eaker Weil even recommends that couples create a family tree with help from their parents and grandparents and share their findings with their partner. This should help to answer questions: how was money handled in each person’s background? Was there fear or deprivation around money? Did people put their family needs before their own? These questions can help predict people’s attitudes about money, an important topic of discussion among couples.
“If you’re able to really understand your own values and beliefs around money, then you’re going to be able to talk to your partner about goals and expectations for your finances,” said Jeanfreau.
She added that financial education should be a part of counseling for newer couples planning to join their finances. If couples learn early on how to communicate with transparency, find a system that works for them, develop a budget and plan and review their finances regularly, it can help prevent financial infidelity behaviors from the start.
Recovering from financial infidelity
This type of infidelity doesn’t have to be the end. But it should trigger a serious discussion, a review of your financial situation and possibly even help from professionals.
Eaker Weil recommends a weekly money talk for couples who have experienced financial infidelity. She said it’s important to approach these conversations with curiosity instead of being reactive, hurt or angry about your partner’s financial infidelity.
But sometimes, the way we talk about it can actually make relationship problems worse. Dunkle said there are four destructive patterns in a relationship that need to be corrected when they occur: criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling.
Replacing those patterns by talking about your own feelings, describing the situation neutrally and describing what you want from your partner positively, rather than negatively, can help couples to move on from a financial infidelity incident. Dunkle also stressed the importance of attending couples therapy, since recovering from financial infidelity can be difficult to manage on your own.
Jeanfreau said the SAFE model is another way for couples to recover from this type of infidelity. It’s a four-step process that involves the following:
- Speaking the truth, or coming clean about financial infidelity
- Agreeing to a plan, which involves setting up a budget
- Following that agreement and regularly reviewing it
- Having an emergency plan, which usually includes seeking the help of therapists or financial advisors
Don’t assume the worst of your partner. Find out what their intention was, and try to have empathy for their situation. And remember that it’s okay to ask for help. It happens to couples everywhere, and love for each other alone can’t prevent or repair it. It may take patience and a lot of work to get back on track, but financial infidelity doesn’t need to destroy your partnership.