When you think of infidelity you may think of a spouse having a wandering eye that leads to a physical or emotional affair. But how often do you think of money?
Most of us have likely heard that money is a hot issue in relationships. It’s one of the most common things couples argue about and has been linked to an increase in divorce rates. But there is another money issue that doesn’t get quite as much play: financial infidelity.
Financial infidelity is a form of cheating, just not a form that we often see highlighted in the media. This sort of cheating occurs when one partner hides purchases, spending, or bank accounts from the other. One person might be secretly saving money to spend it on a guilty pleasure. Or they might have debt that they are hiding from their partner. There are many different ways financial infidelity can present itself, but they all include one person being less than transparent about money.
Financial infidelity is common, with estimates that up to 41% of people who combine money in a relationship admit to being deceitful at some point.
Why is financial infidelity such a problem? And what steps can you take to avoid or address this money problem? Here’s what you need to know.
What Causes Financial Infidelity?
First, it’s important to know that financial infidelity might be difficult to recognize, leading some people to cheat financially without realizing it. In one study, they found that 53% of participants acknowledged that they did things like hiding purchases or lie about how much they paid for something — behaviors that are linked to financial infidelity. But only 27% of participants admitted to keeping financial secrets. So nearly half of the people didn’t recognize that their actions may actually be considered financial cheating.
Aside from the difficulty in recognizing financial infidelity, there are many other reasons a person might cheat with money. Financial therapist Lindsday Bryan-Podvin, LMSW, shares that other reasons include one person feeling like they have lack of autonomy to make financial decisions, not considering their actions to be that serious, or that they get themselves into bad situations that they think they can handle on their own. For example, if partner A was in consumer debt but figured they could pay it off before partner B “found out”, that might be a reason to hide it.
Why Is Financial Infidelity Such a Big Deal?
Research shows that financial infidelity can harm relationships and lead to divorce. “Like other types of infidelity, it disrupts what is a fundamental part of a healthy romantic relationship: trust. It’s a violation of the agreement that each partner is trusted and trusts the other,” says Bryan-Podvin.
If you decide to continue your relationship, you’ll be regularly faced with reminders of the cheating, which can last for years. “The couple will have to face the past indiscretions when it comes time to do things like pay bills, invest for retirement, or save for a goal.”
How Do You Avoid Financial Infidelity?
Prevention, according to Bryan-Podvin, is the best form of action. If you haven’t had money conversations with your partner yet, it might be time to start. She recommends setting aside a specific time to talk about money and offers that you can take a casual approach by saying, “I want to bring up something that we haven’t talked about yet, and I’m a little unsure of how to say it. I want to make sure you know everything about me financially and vice versa. What we’ve been doing with money [has/hasn’t] been working, and I want us to sort it out sooner than later.”
Being honest and transparent about your financial situation looks different and different stages of your relationship. At the beginning of the relationship, it’s probably not necessary to disclose everything up front. But as your relationship grows and matures, your conversations about money should as well. If you’re moving forward with someone in life, that also includes your financial life. At that point, truth and transparency about debt and other money issues become increasingly important.
What Do You Do If You’ve Been Financially Unfaithful?
But what if financial infidelity has already happened? Bryan-Podvin has two suggestions for how to handle the conversation with your partner. First approach the conversation calmly, in a place with limited distractions and stressors. Second, during the conversation, it’s important to watch your language and not play the blame game. She gives the example that blaming language might sound like, ‘“Well if you let me buy the things I wanted in the first place, I wouldn’t have had to resort to shopping behind your back.”
If this conversation isn’t something you want to approach on your own, you can always enlist the assistance of a mediator or therapist. They can help you with strategies and tools to have a constructive conversation.
If you’re struggling with financial infidelity, take heart. Though the indiscretion can damage relationships, Bryan-Podvin assures that some can recover. “An important thing to consider is what caused the person to “cheat” in the first place. Did it feel like they didn’t have autonomy in the relationship? Were they worried that their partner wouldn’t like what they wanted to spend money on? Once you can look at the “why” behind the behavior, you are in a better place to prevent it from happening again.”