What Is Financial Infidelity?

A surprisingly high number of Americans have bank accounts they keep secret from their spouses. This kind of secrecy can lead to problems that extend far beyond your wallet.

A Creditcards.com survey found that some 13 million Americans have a checking, savings, or credit card account that their spouse doesn’t know about, although it is known that about two-thirds of adults in relationships combine their finances with their partner. And 1 in 4 people surveyed said that financial infidelity is worse than sexual infidelity, although 82% also said that they had at some time lied, or hid, from their spouse something about a shopping purchase. Money issues are, after all, the stated leading cause of marital discord and divorce, running ahead of sexual problems and parenting-related issues.

The acquisition, holding, and disposition of money is freighted with emotional baggage for everyone. We learn from our parents values and habits that govern many things in our emotional lives and money values are high on the list. Where we sometimes get into trouble is when we don’t understand what our attitudes are and where they came from, not to get too psychiatric about it.

We get deeper in when we belatedly learn that our spouse acquired not only a different, but often a conflicting set of values and behaviors. Some of us tend toward saving, or hoarding, or inappropriate spending, or the single-minded pursuit of acquiring more and more. We can function well with any of these as long as we understand what drives us and can make allowances for our emotional needs and expectations with our partner.

Our differing learned attitudes and habits about money can become a major problem when they become the fulcrum for conflict about other issues, such as when control of money is used as a means of manipulation or control of the other spouse. The implied dishonesty and disrespect of “financial infidelity” are highly corrosive in relationships and easily can spin out of control to cause lasting harm. Secret accounts can only mean past or future trouble.

Honesty, particularly, is essential for the survival, let alone the thriving, of a marital relationship. Mismatched expectations with the resulting imbalances in function always, and quickly, lead to misunderstanding and conflict. This is especially true with money, more than mundane, yet powerful things like who takes out the trash, for instance. “But my Dad/Mom always did that!”

The solution to financial infidelity first of all, as every doc might say, is prevention. All premarital and “move in together” conversations really require that money matters be agreed upon at the outset, to the satisfaction of both parties. So, hard as it might be, particularly at a later stage, communication is the key to the kingdom.

Whether by yourselves, or with the facilitation of a counselor, the awkward initial conversation should be followed by regular, hopefully easier, reviews. Communication allows compromise and cooperation to occur, later to flourish. The net result is trust, the holy grail of any relationship. And financial infidelity, brought to light or not, will only work to weaken that critical trust.

Even if things are going pretty well, no matter the duration of your relationship, you will be surprised how good it feels to have “the money talk.”

“Listen to each other and get excited about reaching your financial goals as a team,” says Ted Beck of The Wall Street Journal. And you might be surprised what you learn. Especially about yourself.