I found out recently that my wife has a separate savings account. She’s been squirreling away money into because, as she says, it’s her just-in-case money. As in, just-in-case our marriage goes south? I asked. And yes, that’s the reason. This came up because we were discussing starting a family within the next year. But this hit me like a ton of bricks and is making me second-guess everything. As far as I knew, we were saving as much money as we could and making joint decisions. But now? It seems like we’re separate people. She says that it’s not a big deal and will put the money back into our shared account if I want her to. But I’m pretty annoyed by the whole thing. Isn’t lying about finances a pretty big deal? — Chad, via email.
Annoyed? If I were you, I’d be absolutely livid. What she’s doing shows a complete lack of openness and honesty, which, of course, are two of the pillars of a healthy relationship.
“While we don’t like to think of it this way, marriage is both legally and otherwise a financial relationship,” says Matt Lundquist, founder and clinical director of New York City-based TriBeCa Therapy. “Imagine the scenario if this was Chad’s business partner, hiding money ‘just in case.’ It doesn’t work.”
Clearly, you guys need to sit down and get to the core issues causing her to worry about the relationship. The diversion of money into a secret account is really just a symptom of deeper anxieties. Solving only the financial part would be like changing the bandage on a patient with gangrene; if you don’t get the root of the problem, it’s bound to cause even bigger problems before long.
Part of the trick is planning things out so she’s prepared to fully open up with you about her motivations. Confronting the issue when you’re hopping mad may only raise the wall that she’s built around her feelings. A better time to engage is when things have cooled down a bit and she’s had a little time to reflect.
But you do need to get to the bottom of things. That means putting everything on the table, as painful as that may be. “Hiding money from a spouse isn’t okay,” Lundquist says. “Deciding to do that out of fear may be sincere or may be a cover story, consciously or unconsciously.”
The fact that you’re potentially upping the ante in your marriage makes transparency all the more important. “If the issue is one of serious concern, you need to know that, especially if having a baby is on the table,” says Lundquist.
Look, there are any number of reasons why couples might have separate bank accounts. Maybe one spouse wants some breathing to spend on clothes or manicures without having to answer for it every time. It may be a way for each partner to share in money management, rather than having one person take the lead all the time.
Hell, if a marriage turns rocky, a separate account can even protect you from having your spouse drain your assets right before a potential split. Sometimes that’s a valid fear. But the point is that those accounts shouldn’t be secretive — especially when one person in the marriage thinks everything is a-okay. It’s bound to create distrust, and perhaps even a feeling that you’re being financially ripped off.
Hopefully these are issues that you can help uncover through open, honest discussion — assuming she’s a willing participant. By all means, tell her how much you’ve been hurt by her secretive financial maneuvers. But know that heaping judgment at her might not exactly make her want to talk. If that fails, you might suggest the idea of therapy as a way to broach some of these underlying issues with the assistance of an impartial third party.
If the mistrust lingers? Lundquist says one idea you might consider is a post-nuptial agreement. Like, prenups, they lay out who gets what assets should the cracks in the relationship prove irreparable—only they’re drafted after the marriage, not before. “They’re unromantic, but at their best they can be a way of getting worries about money out of the way,” says Lundquist. “Maybe Chad’s wife needs just this sort of reassurance.”
And one thing you can say about postnups is that they’re out in the open. The time for secrets needs to end.