Not all money secrets add up to financial infidelity. Even in committed relationships, autonomy and control are important needs for all of us. Secrets cross the line into infidelity when they are for the purpose of protecting you from the consequences of your financial behavior.
Privacy, on the other hand, is typically based on a conscious agreement about money behavior. For example, partners may agree on a given amount that each one is free to spend without disclosure or discussion.
Here are some situations in a relationship that might foster secret spending or financial infidelity:
1. Not talking about money. A marriage or committed relationship is a business and financial relationship as well as a romantic one. Partners need to work together financially and be able to talk about priorities, goals, and difficulties. That begins with knowing one another’s income, liabilities, debts, and net worth.
2. One partner being the “money person.” It’s not unusual for one partner to have more financial knowledge or interest than the other. Suppose, for example, one partner tends to have money vigilant money scripts and the other is more money avoidant. It’s easy to slip into a pattern where the money vigilant person pays all the bills and manages the finances. They might say, “Here’s the joint tax return; sign here,” and the other partner just signs it without looking or asking any questions. One partner’s lack of knowledge or interest certainly does not justify the other partner cheating. But that passive behavior or disengagement can open the door for cheating or being taken advantage of.
3. A relationship where one partner is the financial “parent” and the other one is the “child.” They do not function as equal partners. This may happen if one partner earns significantly more than the other, has more financial knowledge, or brings more assets into the relationship. The inequality can lead to resentment and secret spending on the part of the “child” partner.
4. One partner is a financial bully who wants to control the finances completely or put unreasonable limits on spending. The other partner may start to keep secrets or hide money, maybe even what is needed for basic survival or the joint benefit of the family. You could have a situation where both the bully and the one being bullied are committing financial infidelity.
5. Partners closing their eyes to red flags. Financial infidelity leaves traces, such as inconsistencies in credit card bills and bank accounts or unexplained purchases. The partner who is not paying attention to all of this may be truly clueless. Or they may be carefully not asking difficult questions, knowing that they’re going to get a backlash or an immediate angry outburst. That could lead to a painful conversation and confrontation about money.
6. Unresolved conflicts in the relationship. In a painful relationship, one partner might use spending to get even with the other or to feel better, or spending could serve as a distraction from the conflict.
Other situations may be more matters of privacy rather than within a coupleship:
1. Partners have agreed to keep their income and assets separate and have established a method of sharing the expenses that are their joint responsibility.
2. One spouse owns a separate business. It’s reasonable for the non-owner spouse to be kept informed of big things like earnings or significant changes or problems; the details of the day-to-day financial affairs of the company aren’t necessarily their concern.
3. When partners have children from previous marriages and have brought assets into the relationship, it’s quite normal that these assets are kept separately. Again, the key is that those assets are typically known and not a secret.
It isn’t possible to define a one-size-fits-all boundary between privacy and secrecy. Each couple needs to draw that boundary for themselves, with conscious awareness, depending on the specific circumstances of their relationship. One guideline I find useful is this: If you don’t have a lot of energy around the matter one way or another, it’s probably a privacy issue. But if you would feel really embarrassed, ashamed, and uncomfortable with your spouse knowing something, it’s probably a potentially destructive secret.
It’s also helpful to consider that financial Infidelity isn’t necessarily the problem, it’s often the symptom of the problem. It’s usually tangled up with other difficulties in the relationship, and it will always exacerbate those problems. The good news is that, even though financial infidelity is very damaging, it is something that a couple can face and heal from.
Check out The Financial Therapy Podcast by Rick Kahler concerning this topic.