How To

How to Deal With Financial Infidelity

(photo: Ed Yourdon)

It’s no secret that money is something of a taboo topic in many social settings. But in a recent survey, American Express found this to be true even between partners. Of the 2,000 individuals surveyed, 91% said they avoid money talks with their spouse or significant other.

Nearly half said they’ve bought something their partner didn’t agree with — and 30% have hidden those purchases from their partner. Some have even gone as far as sneaking out in the middle of the night to buy something or burying the purchase in the backyard.

So what should you do if you have a spendaholic significant other? And what if you’re the one with the hidden shopping problem? Here are three suggestions from the experts.

Pay attention to your partner

When a spouse has been cheated on – whether financially or physically – they usually have some sense that things are amiss but don’t bring it up, at least for a while.

“When you notice something new, you ask the clichéd question ‘when did you get that?’” says Jacquette M. Timmons, president and CEO of Sterling Investment Management and author of the book Financial Intimacy. “And the other person says ‘Oh, I’ve had this for awhile.’ Ultimately, what it really exposes is that there’s a communication gap.”

Karen Bridbord, a couples’ psychologist based in New York City, says that often, something else going on in the relationship contributes to this behavior. It could be one spouse wants to exert a sense of independence or act out against the other person. Perhaps they feel neglected or empty and search for fulfillment by shopping. There may not be any clear-cut warning signs, but in some cases, one spouse may be suddenly selling items to bankroll their new spending habit.

“Money is very symbolic,” says Bridbord. “It’s very tied to psychology in terms of hopes and dreams and security.” Continuously working on the relationship may help prevent smaller issues from snow-balling into a major spending problem.

Take an active role in managing finances

Often, the spouse who doesn’t handle the finances ends up in the dark about their partner’s spending habits. That’s why Timmons recommends that couples share financial chores, such as opening mail, paying bills, and cross-referencing statements and receipts.

Being proactive in bills or opening mail can help you spot a spending pattern before it gets out of hand. Or if you haven’t brought up the issue yet, it can give you the confirmation you need to start a conversation with your spouse.

Communicate to rebuild trust

Some couples may need therapy to regain the trust and emotional intimacy they once shared. Others are able to salvage the relationship on their own through open, honest communication. If you’re the one with the hidden spending problem, Timmons recommends opening the conversation with a statement like, “Honey, I have a problem, and I need your help …” Once it’s out in the open, she recommends creating systems like weekly check-ins to avoid a relapse.

Some partners might react by stonewalling the conversation, getting defensive, showing contempt, or criticizing the other person. All of these behaviors can undermine the relationship, Bridbord says, but there are antidotes to all of them. For instance, “the antidote to defensiveness is taking responsibility,” she explains, “saying something like ‘I can understand what you’re saying because of X, Y, Z’. The antidote to criticism is learning how to complain about something without assassinating the other person’s character.”

The good news is, although it can evoke feelings of betrayal, anger, or frustration, financial infidelity doesn’t need to destroy the relationship. “It can take awhile to earn trust back,” says Bridbord, “but people who face this issue in their relationship have been able to work through it.”

Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers business and lifestyle topics.