Oftentimes, couples avoid talking about the two subjects that are crucial to their wellbeing: money and sex. It may come as a surprise to you that as a couples therapist, I actually hear more about instances around financial infidelity than affairs in the traditional sense. While the term financial infidelity may be relatively new, the concept itself is a notoriously common issue in relationships.
What is financial infidelity?
Financial infidelity happens when one or both partners aren’t honest about their financial situation or actively hide their financial issues. This may look like making financial decisions in secrecy or not being fully transparent about how much one is spending. For some couples this can also look like hiding income, not being forthcoming about debts and large financial obligations or keeping another bank account that’s unknown to their partner.
For some, spending money without their partner’s knowledge feels like freedom and one’s right. There are some partners who don’t see anything wrong with this behavior, and it doesn’t affect the couple negatively. Often however, this comes from a place of partners wanting to avoid arguments about spending. This is especially true in the case of someone who is compulsively shopping, gambling, or otherwise spending money in a way that feels out of control.
How to Recover from financial infidelity
These behavior patterns can be upsetting to face, so what are some steps that you can take if this sounds like you or your partner? First of all, recognize that it’s quite common that someone who is more frugal attracts someone who is a spender, and vice versa. It’s human nature to seek out what initially feels novel and fills the voids we see in ourselves.
1. Acknowledge what’s been compromised
The partner who felt cheated is going to be upset, angry, and disappointed. Just like with an instance of true infidelity, partners may experience feelings of betrayal, loss of trust, and may even want to leave the relationship. Afterall, trust and safety were compromised.
The unspoken message, “Are you here for me?” fails to be answered positively. The reasons why we wanted to be in the relationship in the first place are broken. It’s important to recognize that these feelings are valid and that the relationship is now different from what you once knew.
Just like with true infidelity, partners may experience feelings of betrayal and loss of trust.
2. Be honest and come clean
For some, this might be the first time that partners examine how much they want to be together, and ultimately if they want to stay together after the betrayal, similar to an affair. First, the partners have to honestly assess their financial situation and what needs to change. Both parties have to come clean. If you’re going to recover, it’s important to understand why the financial infidelity happened in the first place.
What was the motive for the behavior, and is the secretive partner willing to work on it? Was it a gambling issue that the partner is in denial about? If the offending partner displays a willingness to address the issue there’s a greater chance for successful resolution.
If you’re going to recover, it’s important to understand why the financial infidelity happened in the first place.
3. Understand your own value system around finances
What is your relationship to money and how was this influenced by your upbringing? What were the messages that you absorbed growing up about spending and how finances should be handled in relationships? Couples need to gain a clear understanding of their own values system and beliefs about finances. There is a very important psychological aspect as to why and how we spend money, and our relationship with money.
Exploring our value system and beliefs about money is key to working through issues of financial infidelity.
4. Examine your relationship
A critical underlying question is: what is “wrong” with the relationship itself, and what is missing in the relationship? Perhaps we are substituting the love that we need from the partner with purchases. Sometimes, the good feeling we get from spending may be one way to meet our needs that aren’t getting met in our relationship. One of my clients shared that she would spend money in secrecy after her fights with her husband. When upset, she wanted to get back at him by purchasing an expensive item. For a brief moment, she felt validated and “happy” because she made the purchase. Through therapy she learned that by doing this she was in fact attempting to “punish” her husband. Although the shopping helped to temporarily validate her anger, it wasn’t a solution that she could feel good about long-term.
For some, the good feeling that comes from spending may offer a temporary distraction from the problems in ones relationship.
5. Listen without judgement
As difficult as it may be, allow room for open and vulnerable conversations. Be curious and listen to what your partner might need. Listen but do your best to refrain from responding with judgement. This will just cause your partner to become defensive about their behavior.
Talk about it and let your partner know why you think and feel the way you do, and how their behavior affects you. Couples I work with who have healthy and long-lasting relationships are the ones who can have open and vulnerable conversations where they feel heard, respected, and supported by each other.
6. Strive for transparency
Both partners have to commit to being fully transparent which includes being involved in budgeting and working towards a recovery plan. Open communication is the key to resolving many conflicts overall and financial issues are no different. It’s important to lay out a plan that is realistic for you as a couple and proportionate to the financial infidelity that occurred.
The bottom line
It is possible to recover from financial infidelity when both partners are willing to work together to find a solution that supports healing. What feels right for each couple will look different, and it’s important to remember that the road towards healing isn’t always a linear journey. You don’t have to struggle alone. Receiving support from a trusted therapist can help you understand if and how you can move forward after experiencing financial infidelity in your relationship.
Your Turn: Have you ever experienced or been the perpetrator of financial infidelity? How did you decide to work through it with your partner? What helped you cope?