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Rebuilding Trust in a Marriage After Financial Infidelity

By Caroline Banton · September 30, 2022 · 7 minute read

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Rebuilding Trust in a Marriage After Financial Infidelity

Marriage is a wonderful but challenging institution. It is supposed to be built on trust and honesty, but infidelity does occur — and it can be devastating. That holds true for financial infidelity, too: Maybe one partner racks up a major amount of debt without disclosing it, or each spouse is keeping a secret account “just in case.” When this kind of behavior takes root and is then exposed, it can do serious harm to a union.

But if financial infidelity in marriage occurs, it doesn’t necessarily mean the partnership is on the rocks. In fact, with the right approach, a marriage can emerge even stronger. Read on to find out:

•   What is financial infidelity?

•   What are the warning signs of financial infidelity?

•   How can you prevent financial infidelity?

•   How can you recover from financial infidelity?

What Is Financial Infidelity?

Financial infidelity occurs when one person in a relationship hides, manipulates, or falsifies information about their financial position, bank accounts, or transactions. The problem can be unintentional to start with but then grow into a significant problem with severe detriment to the relationship.

For example, one spouse may offer to take care of the bills and the finances, and the other spouse trusts them to be responsible. However, the spouse who pays the bills may begin to spend excessively unbeknownst to their partner. They might spend on clothing, stocks, expensive meals out, or any other expense. The result of these splurges could do harm to both partners’ finances, even though only one is aware of it and responsible for it.

What Are Some Common Examples of Financial Infidelity?

Financial infidelity can occur in a variety of situations; whether both couples work or only one spouse doesn’t; whether they have joint vs. separate bank accounts. There’s no one main type.

Here’s a closer look at the different forms of financial infidelity that can occur in a marriage.

Spending Money in Secret

As mentioned above, if one partner splurges and keeps that secret, it can be a form of financial infidelity. This can impact a couple’s shared goals, such as saving for a down payment on a house. Some spouses may establish how much they can spend without having to consult the other. This can help keep the finances fair and avoid this kind of secret spending.

Hiding Debt From One Another

Not disclosing debt to a partner is dishonest and can negatively impact both spouses. For joint bank accounts and credit cards, both partners are equally liable for any debt. For this reason, it’s wise if couples discuss their financial situation early in their relationship, before they enter into a financial partnership to avoid any surprises later on.

Hiding Accounts From One Another

Some people may hide bank accounts from their partners, perhaps considering it their secret “mad money” on the side. While spouses don’t need to know everything about each other’s lives, they do need to be transparent about finances to be on the same page working toward the same goal.

Lying About Income

A spouse might disclose that their income is lower than it really is. They may then use the difference for their own purposes, rather than for shared goals.

Why Do People Commit Financial Infidelity?

There is no one reason why people lie about finances in a marriage, but many do. According to a survey by U.S News & World Report, close to a third of couples experience financial infidelity. Here are three possible explanations.

•   Embarrassment. An individual who has financial difficulties might be ashamed to disclose their financial circumstances when they marry or live with another person. So rather than confess, they hide their debt, say, or a salary that’s lower than they said it was.

•   Revenge. In an unhappy relationship, one partner may tap into shared wealth to exact revenge or punish the other. This behavior, known as “revenge spending” can increase debt (particularly credit card) debt that is not likely to be repaid if there are irreconcilable differences.

•   Emotional issues. One spouse may have an addiction or psychological problem that causes them to act irresponsibly with money. For example, they might have compulsive buying behavior (CBB; which some people refer to as a shopping addiction), bipolar disorder, substance abuse, or gambling.

What Are the Effects of Financial Infidelity?

The most immediate effect of discovering financial infidelity is probably loss of trust. The longer-term consequences can be financial difficulties and, ultimately, divorce. Here’s a closer look:

•   Loss of Trust. When one person in a relationship or marriage withholds, hides, or misconstrues information, they abuse the trust that the person places in them.

•   Financial Difficulties. If one partner has hidden their debt or another financial minefield from the other, it can cause problems for their shared finances. They may both experience cash flow issues and have trouble paying bills and saving.

•   Lower Credit Score. Acting irresponsibly with money, failing to pay bills, or falling deeper into debt will likely cause a lower credit score for the parties involved.

•   Divorce. The problems that result from financial infidelity can lead to separation and divorce.

Tips for How to Deal with Financial Infidelity

Can a marriage survive these kinds of money problems? In all likelihood, yes, provided both partners are committed to moving ahead together. Also worth noting: According to an AICPA survey, seven in 10 married or cohabiting Americans have argued about finances in the past year, but they don’t all divorce. That bolsters the idea that there is a road forward.

Here are some signals that trouble is brewing. Know them so you can hopefully spot them early and save your marriage if financial infidelity occurs.

Watch for Signs

Look out for signs that your spouse’s financial management is suspect. For example, are they unwilling to discuss financial issues? Have you noticed a sudden change in your spouse’s spending? Do you suspect your spouse is hiding information about their finances or lying about money?

If you cannot ask questions and get an honest answer about your marital finances, there is a problem to address.

Keep Tabs on Your Finances

Keeping an eye on your finances will help you recognize problems and tackle them immediately. Do you notice that your spouse isn’t contributing to your retirement account anymore? Are you falling behind on bills and struggling to catch up? These are signals that something has changed.

Get Involved

If one spouse has been holding the purse strings, it’s probably time for that to change. A marriage is an equal partnership, and both partners should play a role in managing the finances. It’s not fair for one partner to bear all the financial responsibility and decision-making. Getting involved is also a good way to stay informed about your shared finances.

If financial infidelity has occurred, you and your partner have options. You might work it out between the two of you, or you might consult a couples counselor, try financial planning, or see a financial therapist (which combines interpersonal and money advice).

Tips for Preventing Financial Infidelity

There are steps you can take to avoid financial infidelity in a marriage and repair missteps. A good place to start is for both partners to have a clear picture of each other’s financial position and their spending habits from the outset. But it’s never too late to sit down (with or without a financial advisor) and develop a plan for managing finances and building wealth. Here, some tactics to try:

Have Frequent Meetings

Agree to meet with your spouse regularly to discuss finances. It could be weekly at first as you get into a rhythm, sort out bank accounts and bills, develop a plan and commit to money goals, and create a budget. But once you are on sound footing with a system, the meetings could be less frequent, perhaps monthly.

Share Responsibilities of Finances

Use the meetings to hold each other accountable. Discuss how decisions should be made on purchases. How are you going to save toward retirement? Decide who will be responsible for what when it comes to the finances, but ensure that both of you are involved.

Communicate All Financials

Review everything — mortgage or rent payments, joint bank accounts, individual bank accounts, credit card payments, car loans, insurance, savings and investments, liens, and credit scores. If both of you have a clear picture of your financial situation, it’s easier to come up with ideas for cutting costs or making financial decisions.

Create a Joint Budget

Try budgeting as a couple, not two separate budgets for you as individuals. As a couple, create and follow a budget. A household budget is unlikely to do its job if members of the household overspend or hide information. If spouses can start working together toward a common goal, trust can be established or, after an instance of financial infidelity, rebuilt.

Recommended: Is a Joint Account Right for You?

Address Any Issues

As the two of you go over the finances, issues are bound to arise. And money can be a very charged topic. Do your best to discuss things calmly. If one person gets defensive, consider taking a break and resuming the meeting at a later time. If you are guilty of financial infidelity, admit it, apologize, and use this as an opportunity to get back on track.

Can a marriage survive financial infidelity? Yes, it can. But each spouse must be open to working through the problem, repairing the damage, adopting a forgiving attitude, and moving forward with transparency and trust.

The Takeaway

Financial matters can be a leading cause of divorce. While partners do have the right and the need for some privacy, financial infidelity is a serious issue. If one partner is hiding money, debt, or income information from the other, it can feel like betrayal and can negatively impact both spouse’s financial futures.

Financial infidelity does not, however, have to mark the end of a marriage. It can be the start of a stronger commitment to work together toward financial stability and greater respect. It starts with a willingness to talk openly and regularly, behave responsibly fiscally, shoulder the financial responsibilities, and admit blame if you are in the wrong.

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FAQ

Can marriages survive financial infidelity?

A marriage can survive financial infidelity if both partners are committed to rebuilding the trust that has been lost. This requires accepting responsibility. Going forward, both partners need to develop a plan to communicate openly and regularly about finances and to work toward mutual goals. Lastly, both should play a part in managing finances.

Is financial infidelity a leading cause of divorce?

Money is often cited as one of the leading causes of stress in a marriage and one that can lead to divorce. Money touches every aspect of our lives and dictates how we live, so it is an extremely sensitive and personal topic, which can trigger major issues in a relationship.

Is financial infidelity the same as cheating?

Financial infidelity can have the same impact as an affair; both destroy trust in a relationship. Whether one or the other is worse depends on your point of view. Both can be overcome, and trust can be rebuilt with commitment and the right approach.


Photo credit: iStock/Stadtratte

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