NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Sunday, October 16, 2022

Financial Infidelity is a Major Issue in Many Relationships

In general, money is a big issue in many relationships.  For many couples personal finances are a point of contention when they either don't agree about financial issues or one or both of them is lying or keeping secrets about money.  In addition, money is often symbolic of power and it can become part of a power struggle in a relationship (see my article: Talk to Your Partner About Money Before You Get Married or Enter Into a Committed Relationship).

Financial Infidelity in Relationships

A January 2022 survey by US News & World Report revealed that as many as one in three couples in the US are dealing with financial infidelity.  Other surveys indicate that it's a growing problem in relationships. 

Of the couples who were dealing with financial infidelity, 76% said it had a negative impact on their relationship and 10% indicated that it led to a divorce (see my articles: Talk to Your Spouse About Money and Are You Arguing About Money in Your Relationship?).

What is Financial Infidelity?
Since it's such a big problem, let's start by defining what financial infidelity means:  Financial infidelity occurs when one or both partners in a relationship, who have some form of combined income, engage in financial behavior they know their partners would disapprove of and they lie or keep it a secret (see my article: Coping With Secrets and Lies in Your Relationship).

Financial infidelity includes, but is not limited to the following activities:
  • Hiding debts, including credit card debt, loans, gambling debts and so on
  • Hiding purchases of big gifts for friends, relatives, extramarital affairs or others
  • Making other big purchases without letting a partner know
  • Lying about how money was spent
  • Lending large sums of money to friends, relatives or others without letting a partner know (see my article: Are Your Relatives Financial Problems Affecting Your Relationship?)
  • Engaging in secret shopping
  • Overspending as a maladaptive way to cope with emotional issues and keeping it a secret (see my article: Learn to Stop Overspending as a Way to Cope With Discomfort).
  • Gambling in secret (casinos, card games, lottery tickets, etc)
  • Keeping secret bank, credit card or payment accounts 
  • Engaging in secret discretionary purchases (vacations, spas, clothing, jewelry and other expenses)

Why Do People Engage in Financial Infidelity?
Talking about money can feel uncomfortable or shameful.

Financial Infidelity in Relationships

In addition, many people who enter into a relationship where they are combining income (or a certain portion of income) never talk about money beforehand.  

There are many reasons why people engage in financial infidelity, including:
  • An Attempt to Maintain Autonomy:  Many people use money, consciously or unconsciously, as an attempt to maintain a sense of autonomy and reassert power in a  relationship.  They might not have learned how to be part of a couple and also be an individual at the same time so committing financial infidelity gives them a sense of independence (see my article: Growing as an Individual While You're in a Relationship).
  • An Attempt to Avoid a Confrontation: This is the most common reason for financial infidelity. It often occurs because people don't know how to talk about these issues or they fear confrontation in general (see my article: Changing Maladaptive Coping Strategies: Avoidance).
  • A Sense of Shame About Money: Many people grew up in households or in cultures where talking about money is considered shameful.  There might also have been secrets and lies about money (see my article: Toxic Family Secrets).  Many others feel so ashamed of their debt or expenses that they don't want their partners to find out about it.  If they are hiding debt, they might rationalize to themselves that they will repay the money before their partners find out about it (see my article: Shame is at the Root of Most Emotional Problems).

Signs of Financial Infidelity
  • Unexplained large withdrawals from joint accounts
  • The discovery of a secret bank or credit card account
  • The discovery of a secret payment account, like Venmo or Paypal
  • Larger than normal cash withdrawals
  • Checks made out to cash
  • Other unexplained expenditures

The following vignettes, which are composites of many different cases with all identifying information removed, are common examples of financial infidelity that bring people into couples therapy:

Patty and Ed:
Six months after they got married, Patty found out that Ed was over his head in credit card debt when they were exploring the possibility of getting a mortgage and Patty obtained credit reports.  The credit reports revealed Ed's $20,000 debt, which he had never disclosed to Patty before they got married--even though they had attended pre-marital counseling which included discussions about personal finances.  

Financial Infidelity in Relationships

She wondered if there were other things he was hiding from her.  Ed said he knew she would discover the debt at some point, but he couldn't bring himself to tell her because he felt so ashamed of it.  Patty felt so betrayed that she asked Ed to move out while she thought about whether she wanted to remain in their marriage.  A week later, Patty agreed to allow Ed to move back in but only on the condition they attend couples therapy to deal with this breach of trust.  In their couples therapy sessions, Ed realized he tended to overspend as a way to boost his low sense of self worth.  Since they got married, he stopped overspending, but he was still struggling with low self confidence.  Over time, as they worked on their issues in couples therapy, Patty forgave Ed for not disclosing his debt before they got married.  They worked on the underlying issues in couples therapy as well as rebuilding trust.  Ed also started individual therapy to deal with low self esteem.  In addition, they sought help from a financial advisor so they could get their finances in order.

Alice and Bill: 
Alice and Bill were married for five years.  When they first got married, they decided to keep whatever money they had before the marriage separate and open a joint bank account for saving and big purchases.  Other than that, they didn't have a discussion about money before they got married.  One day when Alice was going through the mail, she inadvertently opened a letter addressed to Bill from a debt collection agency and she was shocked to read that Bill had a $5,000 debt which he never revealed to her.  

Financial Infidelity in Relationships

Later that night, Alice and Bill got into an argument about the debt.  At first, Bill was angry that Alice opened his mail--even though he knew it was a mistake.  By the next day, he admitted he had other financial accounts he never revealed to Alice because having these accounts gave him a sense of independence.  Soon after that, Alice and Bill entered into couples therapy to talk about the underlying issues in their relationship that led to this financial infidelity and they were able to work through these issues.  They also sought help from a financial advisor.

Bob and Tom:
Two years after they got married, Bob discovered an email addressed to Tom from a payment account that revealed $2,000 was transferred from their joint checking account to an unknown vendor.  When Bob confronted Tom about this expense, at first, Tom said he had never authorized this expenditure and it was a mistake.  

Financial Infidelity in Relationships

But when Bob asked Tom to contact the bank in front of him about this error, Tom balked.  Then, he admitted he was trying to hide that he was using a male escort service.  He thought he could replace the money before Bob noticed it was missing from their account.  He also knew Bob didn't check their accounts regularly.  When he heard Tom's explanation, Bob couldn't understand this because they had a consensual nonmonogamous relationship.  Their agreement was they could have sex with other people as long as they each knew about the other's sex partners and they didn't form emotional ties with these other individuals. They were both aware of the other people they each had sexual relationships with and it had never been a problem before.  Tom admitted that, in addition to the individuals he met up with at bars, which Bob knew about, he also had secret visits to see sex workers because it excited him to have this secret. Over time, he felt guilty about it, but then he felt too ashamed to tell Bob about it.  He said he was working on this issue in his individual therapy, but it was still a problem for him.  Two week later, Bob and Tom entered into couples therapy to work on the breach in their consensual nonmonogamous agreement and the financial infidelity.

Jane and Lilly:
Three years after they moved in together and they combined their finances, Jane happened to see a text flash on Lilly's phone while Lilly was in the shower.  The text was from Lilly's younger sister, Nina.  Jane was shocked to see the text from Nina, which was pleading for more money.  Lilly had never revealed to Jane that she was lending Nina money.  So, when Lilly came into their bedroom after her shower, she was caught off guard when Jane confronted her about the text. 

Financial Infidelity in Relationships

After stonewalling for an hour, Lilly admitted she lent Nina $3,000 from Jane and Nina's joint account because Nina was heavily in debt. Lilly said she felt too uncomfortable to tell Jane about it.  She admitted she knew that Jane never looked at the bank statements and she hoped to replace the money before Jane found out.  Jane was outraged. She knew Lilly had a hard time setting boundaries with Nina, but she considered this breach of trust to be serious enough to insist they attend couples therapy to deal with it as well as other underlying issues that led to this problem.  Over time, their relationship improved while they were attending couples therapy, and Lilly learned to set limits with her sister.

How to Avoid Financial Infidelity
  • Talk About Finances Before Getting Married or Entering Into a Committed Relationship Where You Will Be Combining Income:  The best way to avoid financial infidelity is to come clean about finances before you enter into a serious relationship.  Although it might feel uncomfortable at first, you will avoid problems later on (as shown in the vignettes above).
  • Reveal All Finances to Your Partner: Whether you decide to combine all or part of your finances, reveal all aspects of your finances to your partner.  All accounts should be open and accessible and financial transactions should be transparent to both people.  In addition, have regular discussions about money.
  • Seek Help in Therapy to Deal with the Underlying Emotional Issues: Whether you are hiding aspects of your finances or you are tempted to do so, deal with the underlying issues in individual or couples therapy.  Shame is a major underlying issue when it comes to money, which can be complicated by a family history of financial secrecy or discomfort with talking about money.  Fear of confrontation is also the most common issue with regard to financial infidelity.  It can be difficult to own up to this problem, but dealing it with early in your relationship can avoid bigger problems in the future (see my article: Learning to Trust Again After a Betrayal).

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples and I have helped many clients to deal with the underlying issues that contribute to financial infidelity.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.