For Richer Or Poorer

By Simone Slykhous

January 15, 2016 5 min read

First comes love; then comes marriage. Then comes the crippling debt that your partner didn't tell you about. Wait. What? As it turns out, this is a more common occurrence than you might believe. According to a 2014 Harris Poll survey for the National Endowment for Financial Education, 1 in 3 adults admit to financial infidelity. And much like sexual infidelity, the results can be devastating for relationships.

About 30 percent of adults who have joint assets with a spouse admit to hiding a financial matter -- purchases, bank statements, bills, funds -- from their partner. Another 13 percent have admitted to more serious deceptions -- lying about debt amounts or even income levels. When financial deception has occurred, 76 percent say there was an effect on the relationship, with 10 percent ending in divorce and another 8 percent going through a separation.

Money is not a comfortable topic of conversation for most people. It is considered impolite to ask about a friend or acquaintance's income level and rent or mortgage costs. Rarely do people offer up information about their crippling debt unprompted. These same thought processes around money infiltrate relationships. "People commit financial infidelity because although they are sharing everything with their partner or spouse, they believe that certain parts of their financial situation should remain private," says NEFE Senior Director Patricia Seaman. Fear of judgment or rejection can lead to zipped lips.

If you have fears of financial infidelity in your own relationship, check for warning signs. Is your partner defensive or closed off when discussing finances? Have you noticed new spending patterns? Have there been sudden shifts in compensation or newly opened accounts? Is your partner asking you to sign documents without review or unwilling to let you see receipts or bank statements? These can also be symptoms of a deeper issue, such as gambling, compulsive spending or another money-based addiction.

Separate finances could be the answer for some couples. With the median age of couples getting married on the rise, 31 percent have a separate checking account, and 23 percent have a separate savings account, according to a recent survey by American Express. Maintaining this independence can allow each partner to spend as he or she likes from personal accounts while keeping the money in the joint accounts for joint decisions.

However, the report "Money, Honey if You Want to Get Along With Me: Money Management and Union Dissolution in Marriage and Cohabitation," by Catherine Kenney and Ryan Bogle of Bowling Green State University, tells a different tale. Looking at data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, Kenney and Bogle found a strong connection between consistently keeping money in separate accounts and breaking up.

According to the report, "the decision to use a 'separate purses' system of money management is symbolic of or a marker for couples who are less committed to the relationship, more open to or more concerned about protecting against the possibility of future divorce, or otherwise less willing to bind themselves to their spouse." Attitudes toward money and money sharing are the result of work and family behaviors. If you or your partner is stuck in a pattern of not communicating, that behavior needs to change.

Think your communication skills are strong? So do 72 percent of people surveyed in a 2015 study about couples and retirement by Fidelity Investments. Unfortunately, the numbers don't add up. The study illustrated that 43 percent of couples do not know their partner's exact income, and 36 percent could not agree on their combined household income.

The key issue in financial infidelity -- and in relationship matters -- is communication. It is crucial to be on the same page as your partner. Discussing financial infidelity is difficult, but dealing with massive debt issues down the line could be impossible. Though financial infidelity is not a relationship death knell, getting through it "will take sustained transparency in all communication," says Seaman, "and a commitment from both (partners) to stick to the goals that you've set together."

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