When it comes to relationships, honesty is of the utmost importance. But even the most trusting partners can have a hard time being completely open about their finances. In fact, one recent study found that one in five Americans have lied to their partners about money.
While financial infidelity can lead to some serious consequences, it's not impossible to overcome — especially if you can get to the emotional root of the issue. We asked financial therapists to share how real-world couples have been able to overcome some common financial infidelities together.
Stephanie and Kris* had been married for seven years when they started working with Clare Dubé, a certified financial social work counselor. Although Stephanie felt that Kris earned a decent income, he always insisted there wasn’t enough money to spend on the things they needed or wanted. Ultimately, she believed his frugality was having a negative impact on their daily life.
While cleaning out their attic, Stephanie came across a locked safe hidden away in a corner. When she asked Kris about it, he confessed that he was using it to store a large sum of money. She was confused as to why, especially when they needed so many home and car repairs and never went on vacations.
How they got through it
At the root of Kris’ behavior was his past experience with money. Kris believed his actions were for the couple’s benefit. Over the course of his childhood, he watched his mother regularly give money away to relatives at the expense of his family’s own savings. Kris developed a fear of losing money, which was also why he refused to invest the money in the markets. For him, seeing money in a safe was a literal financial safety net.
After sharing their respective feelings and experiences, Stephanie and Kris decided what to do with the money together. They agreed to spend some of the money on various repairs, put some of it into a savings account and keep a small amount on hand to give Kris a sense of security.
Hidden credit card debt
When Ellen came to see Joyce Marter, a licensed psychotherapist, she was feeling disconnected in her marriage. Ellen and her husband were about to become empty nesters, and she resented him for being emotionally absent and consumed by work.
To cope, Ellen started using a secret credit card and began to develop a shopping habit, which she justified as self-care. She eventually accrued over $25,000 in credit card debt and grew concerned that her husband would find out.
How they got through it
For the next couple of months, Marter helped Ellen sort through deep-seated relationship issues that seemed to be at the root of her spending. They honored her feelings of loss and developed a vision for the next chapter of her life. Ellen knew she had to confront the debt, so she eventually invited her husband to join her for couple’s counseling. She shared her feelings of loneliness and a desire for greater connection; her husband expressed he had been having similar feelings.
Ellen confessed to the secret debt and assumed full responsibility, sharing her plan to pay it off by getting a part-time retail job. While her husband was upset, he was not as angry as Ellen had anticipated and was able to forgive her. They vowed to improve their communication and cultivate a more collaborative relationship.
Giving money away without permission
When Dubé first began working with Mary and Jeremy, the couple had been married for nearly six years, had three young children, and were living paycheck to paycheck.
During a family dinner, Mary’s sister quietly thanked Jeremy for money he and Mary had given her. He had no idea that Mary had secretly sent her $1,500 to pay for a career certification that would help her earn a pay raise.
How they got through it
Mary felt that she had an obligation to help a family member in a time of need. Jeremy, on the other hand, was upset that Mary did not include him in the decision or discuss whether they had the financial means to help.
With Dubé’s guidance, the couple decided Mary should speak to her sister about paying the couple back. In addition, Mary and Jeremy agreed to sit down twice a month to review their income, expenses and financial goals. By making time for financially focused conversations, they were able to mend their relationship.
Sharing your values is key to overcoming financial infidelity
According to Dubé, no two cases of financial infidelity are the same, but there is a common thread: Sharing your financial values with your partner can give you a greater understanding of each other’s money decisions. “Conflict comes from lack of clarity,” she says. “When we share our money beliefs, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and it opens us up to financial intimacy rather than infidelity.”
*To ensure confidentiality, names and identifying details have been changed.
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