Financial infidelity in a relationship is not usually a behavior that suddenly appears out of nowhere. It often develops over time, and it often grows out of or is part of other problems in the relationship. Like other types of infidelity, it leaves evidence for the partner to find.
These are some of the situations in a relationship that might foster secret spending and financial infidelity.
· Not talking about money. In order for a couple to work together financially, they have to be able to talk about priorities, goals, and difficulties. They have to be able to discuss financial needs. They need to know one another’s income, liabilities, and net worth. Otherwise they won’t have the resources and information to create and maintain a joint spending plan.
· One partner choosing to stay ignorant about family finances. This might include signing joint tax returns without looking at them, refusing to have anything to do with balancing checkbooks, letting the other partner take full responsibility for paying bills, or choosing not to learn about finances. One partner’s ignorance or non-involvement certainly doesn’t justify cheating or lying by the other partner. Still, such passive behavior is an abdication of responsibility. It is refusing to be involved as an equal partner in the financial aspect of the relationship.
One partner being a financial bully. If one person tries to control the finances completely or put unreasonable limits on spending, the other partner may feel powerless and see little choice but to hide spending and keep money secrets.
· A relationship where one partner is the “parent” and the other is the “child” when it comes to spending. A couple can slip into this pattern particularly easily if one is more responsible about money than the other or if one earns or has significantly more money than the other. If one spouse feels it necessary to monitor the other’s spending, or one has to ask the other for permission to spend joint funds, they aren’t equals when it comes to money. This inequality can foster resentment and lead to secret spending on either side.
· Closing your eyes to inconsistencies in credit card bills or bank accounts. Financial infidelity leaves traces. Secret spending has to come from somewhere, and it has to go somewhere. Unexplained cash withdrawals, large credit card balances, or grocery bills that seem unrealistically high are all examples of possible signs that a spouse is spending money in secret.
· Choosing not to notice the number of new clothes, electronic gadgets, or household items that mysteriously appear and seem excessive for the family budget. Even if your spouse shops at Wal-Mart rather than Neiman Marcus, bringing home bags and bags of stuff from every shopping trip means that serious money is being spent. The partner who doesn’t seem to pay any attention to all those new possessions might be truly clueless—or might be carefully not asking difficult questions that could lead to a painful confrontation about money.
· Unresolved conflict in a relationship. In a painful relationship, one partner might use spending in an attempt to “get even” with the other. Spending might also be a way to try to feel better or as a distraction from the conflict.
Financial infidelity isn’t necessarily “the problem” in itself. It often is tangled up with other difficulties in the relationship, and it almost always will exacerbate those problems. Even though it is very damaging, it is something a couple can face and can heal from.
Next week we’ll discuss some of the ways a couple can recover from or avoid financial infidelity.