Infidelity of any kind can tarnish even the strongest relationship. It feels like the ultimate betrayal, and recovering is difficult. While many of us understand the consequences of physical or emotional infidelity, financial infidelity — when one person hides debt, assets, or spending from their partner — can leave you with more than a broken heart.
This kind of cheating is more common than one might think. One-third of teens said they had seen warning signs of financial abuse or infidelity by a partner, according to a survey conducted by Junior Achievement.
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What Is Financial Infidelity?
It can be similar to financial abuse, except that financial infidelity encompasses lying and secrecy, whereas financial abuse is typically more severe and focused on a sense of control.
Here are some examples of how financial infidelity can play out. There may be reasons any of these things happen that may not necessarily spell out infidelity, but if you see any of things occurring frequently in your relationship, then you need to have a serious, honest talk with your partner about how to address the issue:
- Lying to you about how much debt they have.
- Lying to you about their income if there is a significant difference from what you believe they earn.
- Hiding additional assets, accounts, or income.
- Financially addictive behavior such as drinking or smoking that you have a partial responsibility to pay for.
- Going over budget in set categories of a joint budget and hiding or lying about it.
- Lending money to friends or relatives from shared accounts without your permission.
Again, all of these things may happen in situations that don't necessarily constitute abuse or infidelity, but they are absolutely not normal things you should expect or tolerate on a regular basis.
A few years ago, a colleague confided in me that he was getting a divorce. His wife was addicted to online video games and had depleted nearly all their child’s education fund to pay for her addiction. The infidelity broke their relationship and jeopardized their child’s financial future.
Valerie Rind, the author of Gold Diggers and Deadbeat Dads, witnessed firsthand how one financial lie can ruin a marriage. “My husband pretended that he owned the small condo where we lived once we were married,” she says. “Eventually, we moved to a larger apartment, ‘rented’ out the small condo, and planned to sell it and buy a house after a few years.”
Once the truth came out, Rind realized that her financial picture wasn’t as pretty as she thought.
“I was shocked to discover that he lied to me for nearly a decade, grossly misrepresenting our assets,” she says.
You may wonder how something like this can happen, but it’s not as unbelievable as you may think. When you’re deeply in love with someone, you don’t want money to come between you. But we know money can cause stress, so if one person is better at managing money, you may think it makes sense to have that person manage the finances.
Financial infidelity can happen in any relationship and can be as small as hiding an important purchase or as big as lying about an asset or spending money without your partner’s consent.
Top Signs of Financial Infidelity
There are a few signs that may give you a heads-up that your partner is financially cheating on you. Some include:
- A lack of communication, especially when it comes to financial matters.
- Opening new accounts or signing documents without your consent.
- A change in mood — sometimes financial infidelity can be the result of another addiction, such as gambling or alcohol.
- Sudden concern about financial hardship.
- Unexplained drops in the balance on your checking or savings accounts.
- Acquiring a lot of new stuff, especially if you’re unsure where it all came from.
- Sudden generosity.
- Becoming inappropriately emotional when it comes to topics of money.
- Acting paranoid about getting the mail or trying to filter the mail before you can see it.
- Switching to paperless or digital mail from financial institutions.
If you notice any of these signs, you might want to talk to your partner.
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How Can You Avoid Financial Infidelity?
“Be open and honest about your finances. Keep in mind that nearly everyone has screwed up or made poor decisions,” Rind says. Schedule monthly money dates and if you share a joint account, make sure that you have access to it.
Also check your credit report together each year to get a clear picture of where you stand financially.
While you’re at it, talk about your shared goals and dreams. Make money about more than just money.
What happens if you realize that you’re experiencing financial infidelity? “Once you discover the problem, proceed with caution. Money is a highly charged topic. You might try couples counseling,” says Rind. “But recognize that, like sexual infidelity, the damage may be irreparable. I felt I could never trust my husband again.”
Assess the root cause of the infidelity. Is it a communication issue, a spending issue, or an addiction? And ultimately, you’ll have to decide if you can work on it together.
What to Do If Your Partner Has Financially Cheated on You
The first step to reestablishing trust is to have a frank conversation with your partner about the gravity of the infidelity. Address the following to get a good measure of the impact their actions will have on you as individuals and as a couple:
- Discuss all forms of accounts, cards, assets, etc. that exist — not just the ones that were used in the infidelity or hidden.
- Determine the full extent of the damage. This may include the amount of debt that was accumulated, how much of your savings were depleted, or how much money your partner was hiding.
- If debt has been incurred on accounts with your name on them, pay it off or freeze one or both of your credit scores until you've formed a plan.
- Make a plan to address any outstanding issues. Establish steps to take both immediately and in the coming days and weeks.
- Rework budgets where necessary.
- Agree on periodic financial checkups in which you have regular talks about finances with documents and statements on hand.
- Consider creating a basket or file where all financial documents, such as bills and credit card and bank statements, are placed and kept available for all parties involved to view at any time.
Additional reporting by Jazmin Rosa.