Maybe it’s a credit card , a secret bank account, or a delinquent student loan debt. Whatever it is, it’s been kept secret from a husband or wife because they don’t need to know about it. It’s not discussed but it’s not that important. It isn’t like it’s an affair. There’s no harm in keeping it secret.
But there is a great deal of harm that can come to a marriage when accounts, debts, and purchases are kept hidden. And, as it turns out, this financial infidelity is more common that one might think. A recent creditcard.com survey, for example, found that 29 million Americans — one out of every five people living with a spouse or partner — are keeping a bank or credit card account secret. The same survey also found that 20 percent of consumers felt that financial infidelity is worse than having an affair.
Considering how sacred texts from the Ten Commandments to Beyonce’s Lemonade warn against adultery, it may seem counterintuitive to think that financial dalliances could be worse than physical ones. But, San Francisco Bay-area wealth advisor Brent Thomas says, whether it’s in a bedroom or on a balance ledger, a betrayal is a betrayal.
“Breaking trust in a relationship is damaging any way you do it,” Thomas said. “So whether your spouse catches you lying, your spouse catches you cheating, or your spouse catches you doing something with the finances that are inappropriate.”
Physical affairs are atom bombs. They decimate years of trust built up in a relationship. Partners have invested so much time, energy, and emotion into establishing a healthy marriage. Once the lies are revealed, a spouse suddenly transforms into an untrustworthy stranger. The other person feels alone and unsure of who they can rely on.
“It forces you to ask ‘How well do you really know your partner?’ ‘How much is my partner withholding?’ ‘How much is your partner going to continue withholding?,” said Aaron Anderson, owner and counselor at the Marriage and Family Clinic in Colorado. “It just creates insecurity. It creates questions about the future.”
Financial infidelity brings the same emotional toll as standard infidelity while also exposing the wronged spouse to another form of agony: they might also be broke and saddled with debts for the rest of their lives. Their life and lifestyle was nothing more than an illusion.
As Tina B. Tessina, PhD, a psychotherapist and author of How to Be Happy Partners: Working It Out Together noted, financial infidelity hurts on both emotional and practical levels.
“The betrayal and broken trust are very similar,” Tessina said. “It’s a slow process for the couple to recreate trust and honesty. In the case of financial infidelity, if it’s bad, the couple may have a lot of rebuilding to do, getting themselves out of the debt created.”
Modern life has made financial infidelity more of a concern than before. As couples are marrying later in life and it’s likely that both spouses work, people often come into marriage with a defined sense of financial independence, disclosing finances can feel uncomfortable, even intrusive. Instead of having a shared pool of money, many couples have separate accounts, split housing costs, and take individual responsibility for utilities and other expenses. In addition, technology makes it nearly effortless to keep shameful debts or secret spends secret.
“In the past, when somebody got a credit card, there was almost always mail coming to the house,” said Thomas. “The statement would show up every month and if you’re taking the mail, you’d notice a statement for a credit card you don’t recognize. But in this day and age, a lot of those things are done electronically. And if you’re not checking their email, then how are you going to know that there’s a new credit card statement?”
Some financial infidelities, of course, are obvious. There’s, say, the sudden and unexpected appearance of a pile of Amazon packages on your doorstep or a new sports car in the driveway. But there are much subtler red flags to look out for, per Tessina, including a partner’s newfound obsessive behavior, changes in temperament, refusal to talk, and sudden interest in secrecy.
As devastating as adultery can be, it’s at least a concept that couples intuitively understand. That’s not true of financial infidelity. For this reason, financial matters need to be communicated about early and often in a relationship. Because, as Anderson observed, most people don’t discuss financial infidelity until there’s a problem.
“Nobody sits down and defines these boundaries,” Anderson said. “And until one of the boundaries have been crossed and a lot of times the partner doesn’t even know they’re crossing that boundary.”