She Said, He Said: Financial infidelity can hurt a marriage, but trust can be repaired
She Said, He Said
Dear Lori and Jeff,
I just recently found out that my wife has been keeping a secret bank account. We married six years ago, and at that time agreed to combine our finances. We both work full time and contribute equally to building our nest egg. I’m not necessarily upset about the money, but I’m incredibly angry that she has been lying to me this whole time. I don’t know how I’m supposed to trust her again. I love her and the life that we have together, but fear that we won’t ever get past this. Please help.
In The Dark
Lori and Jeff: Money and finances are consistently identified as top reasons for divorce. Early in relationships when hormones are soaring and everything feels great, we often don’t see a need to discuss how we feel about money and to share our stories around it. Those conversations are often stressful to have, so we just don’t go there. But without a real understanding of each other’s relationship with money, tension, resentments and major missteps are likely to occur.
Lori: There truly is no justification for financial infidelity in a healthy marriage, meaning one in which there is equality and no abuse, neglect or control occurring in any realm. Assuming your marriage reflects those qualities, your wife should have been upfront about her thoughts, wishes and needs. It’s important now that she takes accountability and apologizes for keeping this secret. With that said, it’s also crucial to acknowledge just how deeply money affects women. For many of us, money is connected in our subconscious to our core survival. Which means it’s also directly tied to our most primal fears. According to financial expert Jean Chatzky, women in particular have a strong association between finances and well-being, and even more specifically, savings and safety. Even women who haven’t actively explored the topic know that they have a few reasons to feel financially vulnerable. Statistically, we tend to have less earning capacity then men and also live longer.
A 2019 study in the Journal of Consumer Research reported that financial infidelity is present in 13% to 22% of couples. The prevalence of this behavior, including concealing debt, making secret purchases and opening up secret credit cards, highlights just how many partners don’t think their significant other will understand them or support them. Your wife’s work moving forward is to get clear on what her hoard represents to her and what she needs differently from you or the marriage to feel more secure.
Jeff: Secrets and lies are damaging to most relationships. When they happen between committed romantic partners they can be so devastating that they can create painful rifts that may never heal. Most of us think about sexual or emotional affairs when we think about relationship infidelity, but the assumption that we can trust our partners to be honest with us when it comes to money can open the door for potential heartbreak. When the trust around finances is broken, we can feel as equally betrayed as when our partner has had an affair. The parallels don’t end there. Like in sexual or emotional affairs, there is rarely just one partner who is solely responsible for the transgression. The unscrupulous choice may be directly attributed to one partner, but all of the elements that led to the decision often fall on both partners’ shoulders. It will be very important for you to reflect on how the dynamics of money play into your marriage. Are there unspoken rules or assumptions about your finances and who is in control of them? Is there an open and transparent platform to talk about money? Is there an understanding of your own stories about money as well as an understanding each other’s?
Jeff and Lori: Trust is built over time, through a thousand small moments of integrity, but can be eroded in one moment of dishonesty. It’s OK that you don’t trust your wife today. Financial infidelity is unforgettable, but if she’s willing to own her part and do some work, it doesn’t have to be unforgivable. To get past this, you’ll have to acknowledge and express the pain she’s caused, but you’ll also need to focus on all of the ways each of you can create a more transparent and trusting foundation.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Submit your relationship questions to info@AspenRelationshipCoaching.com and your query may be selected for a future column.
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