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Sunday, January 20, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Money secrets can chip away at a relationship

Bankrate.com

If you've ever hidden a purchase from your spouse or secreted away some household cash for a rainy day, you hereby have been deemed financially unfaithful and may now commence the walk of shame.

If you have a secret credit card, bank account, sports bookie or standing tab at that bar on the way home from work, forget the walk and start running.

Financial infidelity — those money secrets we keep from our significant others — takes many forms, ranging from harmless and idiosyncratic to hurtful and destructive.

Nearly one-third (29 percent) of people in a committed relationship say they have been dishonest with their partner about spending habits, according to a Harris Interactive survey.

Money counselor Ruth Hayden says there are some telltale signs that help distinguish injurious money secrets from those that are merely innocuous.

"If it feels bad, it's infidelity," says Hayden, who is based in St. Paul, Minn. "As long as I'm not doing something with the money that breaks a code for us, an agreement or moral issue, then we're fine. Trust is the key with any kind of infidelity."

Money troubles are often cited as a primary contributor to a national divorce rate that hovers just north of 40 percent.

So it seems likely that money secrets at least undermine a relationship, if not hasten its demise.

"What people don't understand is that most trust is built up with tiny little things and can be destroyed by something tiny as well," Hayden says. "Disrespect can foster doubts about whether you can trust your partner, or whether you can trust and face yourself."

Hayden sees many forms of financial infidelity in her practice, most of it harmless — at least at first. She says women, in particular, are often advised to keep a secret stash of cash on hand "just in case."

"There's a Yiddish word, 'knipl,' for little pots of money that have been used over the years by women," she says. "That's why when you clear out the house of an old woman, you go through all the pockets of all the coats and look through all the important books like the Bible, because there are little pots of money everywhere. Somehow, there is the illusion of safety if I can tuck away a $20 here and a $50 there."

In fact, women are more likely than men to stray financially (33 percent vs. 26 percent), in part because they tend to oversee the household budget (41 percent vs. 21 percent), according to the 2005 Harris Interactive survey that sampled 1,796 adults between the ages of 25 and 55 and was commissioned by Redbook magazine and lawyers.com.

When sparks fly over money, it usually involves individual purchases (50 percent), general household budget (45 percent), credit-card debt (32 percent) or spending on the kids' toys and clothes (26 percent).

Some financial infidelities may be well-intentioned. Perhaps you secretly save money to surprise your partner on a birthday or your anniversary. Or you tuck away some cash as a safety net for a spouse who has trouble holding on to the stuff.

But even well-intentioned hoarding can backfire, as Hayden found out 36 years ago when she secretly saved to buy her husband a special present on their second Christmas together.

"I got this beautiful present for him when he bought me a normal sort of present and he was just horrified; he felt terrible. It ruined the Christmas for him," she recalls.

"That's when we came up with our dollar limit for birthdays and Christmases. I would much rather stash a pile of money and get something quite expensive than work and be creative within $100, so this is not my style, but it's absolutely the right thing to do, and it's good for our marriage."

Men also may have the best of intentions when they shelter their partners from harsh financial realities. But that, too, can be a slippery slope, Hayden warns.

"I got a call from a retired attorney who had lost $450,000 in his 401(k) overnight, virtually his whole retirement, by day trading and his wife found out about it," she says. "If the spouse who is cheating also does the tax returns, there may be no way you would know about it."

Why would you cheat financially? There are numerous reasons, according to Robin Stern, a New York City-based psychotherapist and author of "The Gaslight Effect."

"It may be an avoidance behavior, an unwillingness to confront," says Stern. "Many people I know don't want to tell their partner how much money they're spending because they don't want to have to deal with the person's reaction. They aren't willing to bring the issue out onto the table and work it through."

Stern says partners who overlook each other's financial peccadilloes may be under what she calls the "gaslight effect," in which one party subtly manipulates the other to accept a shared alternate reality that makes their duplicitous behavior acceptable.

"I worked with a couple where she basically had no idea what kind of money was coming into the home," says Stern says. "When she would ask her husband, he would say, 'What's the matter, don't I take good enough care of you?' So she kept being in the dark about it, and she knew it was trouble because she couldn't have the conversation without her spouse turning it back on her."

Stern says what might start as playful deception can turn destructive when others are drawn into the charade, especially children.

"How do you tell your kids to always tell the truth and never tell a lie, but don't tell Daddy that I bought this?" she asks. "How do you teach them what the discriminating factor is that determines when it's OK to lie?"

In some cases, financial infidelity is associated with something much worse — actual marital infidelity. Can cheaters be forgiven? Once financial infidelity is discovered, can trust be restored to a relationship? Hayden and Stern agree that it depends on the underlying reasons for the cheating.

"The deeper issue is, what's the health of your relationship? Is your relationship one where lying is no big deal, or is it a big deal?" Stern says.

Hayden uses what she calls the four cornerstones of a relationship — commitment, respect, trust and compromise — to show why cheating of any kind damages relationships over the long term.

"Cheating may be the presenting issue, but underneath it, it usually has something to do with ongoing lack of trust, lack of respect or one of us doesn't have commitment."

Open communication about all things financial, including the couple's money agreements, can help two people rebuild their relationship together. It's in the dark places, from secret spending to hidden account balances, that doubt and suspicion take root and grow.

Unilaterally taking steps toward some secret money goal can erode trust in your relationship and deprive you of the opportunity to work together and develop problem-solving skills, an important tool for a long-lasting union.

While damage caused by deceit can be repaired in any relationship, Hayden says "gaslighted" couples may have a better chance of weathering financial infidelity than those where one party didn't see it coming.

"If somebody finds out something that is a secret, truly, truly a secret, then I worry," she says. "Then it's more than an illusion of control or safety or personality or style. Then it's something bigger."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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