Do you and your spouse or partner keep money secrets from each other? If so, those secrets may add up to financial infidelity, which is a common dynamic in committed relationships.
Most of us don’t talk much about our finances. Imagine, for example, talking about your salary, your net worth, or the amount of your credit card debt at some public gathering or posting that information on social media. What feelings come up? I think it would be pretty normal to experience humiliation, panic, or shame. We learn to keep money matters private. But keeping money secrets in a committed romantic relationship usually doesn’t end well.
Each of us has an individual relationship with money. It touches everything we do, and we have our own patterns of behavior around money. In a committed relationship, typically there are promises of openness, transparency, and exclusivity. Keeping secrets around another significant relationship—our relationship with money—breaks those promises. It is a form of infidelity.
I have found that a lot of people who wouldn’t dream of betraying their partners by having an illicit sexual or emotional affair may be committing financial Infidelity. And financial infidelity can be just as damaging as an emotional or a sexual affair.
I want to be clear that partners respecting each other’s privacy and autonomy is important. There is a difference between secrecy and privacy. My own definition of financial infidelity is “keeping any secret around money that you would feel ashamed to have your partner discover.” It has little to do with the amount of money involved, and it could involve a wide range of money behaviors. Here are just a few examples:
1. Maintaining a secret stash of cash. It could involve literally hiding cash or keeping money in a separate account unknown to the partner. At times there may be a good intention for this, or there may be a situation where a victim of domestic abuse is saving money in order to flee the relationship. What makes it infidelity is having secret money that you would be ashamed to have your partner find out about.
2. Spending a significant amount from joint funds without first discussing the purchase with the partner—unless there is a prior agreement that this is okay. Sometimes, for example, partners agree on an amount that each can spend unilaterally, and going over that limit would violate the agreement.
3. Lying to your partner about the cost of things you purchase, or overspending and hiding the things you buy. It is the lie and the secret, not the dollar amount, that makes this financial infidelity. The betrayal is in the dishonesty.
4. Hiding income or assets from your partner. This could be anything from hiding bonuses or lying about your net worth to accepting secret gifts from parents.
5. Hiding debts or liabilities from your partner. A common example of this is one partner coming into a relationship with significant credit card debt that they are too ashamed to disclose.
6. Secretly giving to or spending money on children or other relatives. Not only is this damaging to the relationship, but it teaches children inappropriate or destructive financial habits.
7. Risking joint resources for investments or business purposes without your partner’s knowledge or agreement. Examples would be taking out a second mortgage on your home to fund a business or taking out a business loan that really risks the family’s income.
Just to be clear, not every financial secret is financial infidelity. It’s also important to keep in mind that all of the behaviors around financial infidelity typically have a good intention behind them. The intention may go back to childhood and often is meant to keep us safe. Exploring the intention can really enlighten that behavior and is a good first step toward change.
Another aspect of financial infidelity is that the partner keeping the secret is not exclusively “the problem.” Each partner contributes to the behavior.
Financial infidelity happens in almost half of relationships. Yet couples can recover from the infidelity, change their patterns of behavior, and build a stronger relationship based on financial transparency and trust.
Check out The Financial Therapy Podcast by Rick Kahler concerning this topic.