How to handle financial infidelity in your relationship

·4 min read

To most couples, “cheating” means having a romantic encounter outside of a committed relationship. That can come in several forms, from “emotional” cheating to sexual affairs.

However, a different form of infidelity is also common, and it’s all about money. According to a new survey from the U.S. News & World Report, a third of couples report that they have experienced some form of financial infidelity, with Gen Z and millennials reporting it the most.

What is financial infidelity?

From keeping purchases secret to hiding debts and lying about income, financial infidelity can manifest in a variety of ways. Not only can these issues fracture trust in a partnership, but they can also cause financial damage as well, leaving the couple with unmanageable debts or unable to pay their costs of living.

“Financial infidelity is similar to romantic infidelity in that it’s a breach of trust,” Beverly Harzog, credit card expert and author of The Debt Escape Plan, told Yahoo Money. “Anytime you’re withholding information from your significant other, it’s financial infidelity.”

Why do people commit financial infidelity?

People engage in financial infidelity for many reasons, but the survey’s top ones are telling. Wanting to avoid an argument was the most cited reason, with embarrassment about mishandling money and wanting to feel financially in control rating second and third. Harzog pointed out that less than 10% of partners found out about the issue by way of confession.

“People discover this because they see the signs of it happening,” she said. “It would be nice if everybody confessed, but they don’t. It’s best not to take the viewpoint that it’s somebody’s fault. Find out why your partner did what they wanted to do. If it’s you, find out why you wanted to do that.”

A similar poll from CreditCards.com also found that the top reason people cited for financial infidelity was that “the topic never came up.” Unfortunately, that means the other partner usually has to figure out what’s happening on their own.

“I don’t think that’s a great answer, “ Ted Rossman, CreditCards.com’s senior industry analyst, told Yahoo Money. “Thirty percent said it was a desire to control their own finances. I think now we’re getting warmer. People have a hard time meshing their money personality with someone else’s. They just want to do their own thing.”

Rossman also points out that younger adults are waiting longer to get married, which can make the idea of sharing finances even harder to adjust to. He also mentioned that many have divorced parents as well, which can impact the ability to trust in the safety of the relationship.

What should I do if my partner commits financial infidelity?

A situation like this is sure to rouse difficult emotions, but once they pass, there is room to consider several options for how to move forward. The highest percentage of the couples surveyed started talking about finances with their partners. Others set up a budget and goals to give their financial lives structure.

“We found that after the financial infidelity was discovered, almost 43% of couples decided to have regular conversations about finances,” Harzog said, citing the U.S. News & World Report survey. “This is so important. If you both do your own thing, it’s inevitable that this can happen. Weekly money meetings are a powerful tool.”

Rossman agreed that talking about money is key.

“Schedule time to talk to your partner,” he said. “Frame it in the positive, focusing on goals and what you want to achieve.”

For some, the violation of trust is too great. In the CreditCards.com survey, 29.3% of the couples chose to separate their finances, while 19.9% reported separating over the issue.

“People are forgiving, but it’s also important to be honest,” Rossman said. “I think the secret can take on a life of its own. It’s worse the longer it lasts, and it gets harder to win that trust back.”

Harzog also pointed out that even though you may have made choices you aren’t proud of, it’s normal to make financial fumbles.

“We all make mistakes with money,” she said. “So if you're in an environment where you’re communicating and no one is playing the blame game, you have better chances (of staying together).”

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