Approximate read time: 4 minutes

In a 2015 article, CNBC reported that 72 million Americans were hiding money from their spouses.  While I’m not at all surprised, I’m sure by now the number is quite a bit higher.

Financial infidelity simply means when you or your partner is hiding something about finances.  This can look like: hiding debt, hiding savings, making financial decisions without your partner, or hiding or misrepresenting income.

The definition is simple, but the reasons for financial infidelity get vastly more complex.  And just to be clear, financial infidelity is something that relationships can come back from.  

In this article we’re only talking about financial infidelity within an otherwise healthy relationship.  Financial abuse frequently incorporates financial infidelity, and within the coaching I do with couples, is treated much differently.

It is important not to assign blame to either partner when it comes to financial infidelity.  Blame, accountability, responsibility, are all things we think are going to “solve” the financial infidelity, but secret keeping is only a symptom of the larger problem, not the problem itself.  At its core, financial infidelity is not a personality defect but an attempt to protect.

Reason #1:  We are trying to protect normalcy

Humans are weirdly adept at doing whatever it takes to keep up what is normal or common in our lives, even if our normal isn’t healthy.   This isn’t even really about how we are perceived by others (The Keeping Up With The Joneses idea).  This is the very human survival instinct that there is safety in things not changing.  Change is scary and bad, and our brains know that.   Keeping things the same represents safety.  The more pressure our brains and nervous systems are under, the more likely we are to value normalcy.  

Even slight “irregularities” in our finances can be deeply humiliating, so of course we try to protect ourselves by hiding them, especially from the person closest to us.    

Reason #2:  We are trying to protect ourselves

It cannot be understated how deeply money is connected to our sense of survival.  It is, after all, the one resource in our modern lives that we can exchange for lots of other resources.  Guarding that resource (hording) for ourselves is an attempt at protecting ourselves.

To further protect ourselves, we switch over to hyper-individuality… feeling like we need to do it on our own (or is no one else’s business).  We must, above all, not let anyone know something is wrong.

Here’s what that can sound like:

“I’ll just take care of it myself.”
“This is just a temporary state, no need to worry my spouse.”

Reason #3:  We are trying to protect our partners

I’ve rarely seen an instance where someone lied about something financial to be malicious (financial abuse being the exception).  Financial infidelity is overwhelmingly an attempt to protect the relationship, protect ourselves, protect a partner, or protect the status quo.

Like lots of things in our relationships, however, the things we do to protect ourselves can be perceived as a threat by our partner, and even ourselves.  

“I was trying to protect you.”  may be an absolutely honest intent, although the impact will often be exactly the opposite.

Reason #4  Fear, shame, and guilt

Fear of shame, guilt, and judgment are preventing an open conversation.  We apply plenty of shame and guilt about our finances to ourselves, we don’t need someone else doing it too!  

We often think that judging ourselves or someone else’s decisions is a good way to make better decisions in the future, but it does not work.  If shaming ourselves or others worked, we’d all be fantastic at this life thing.

A symptom of a larger problem

On its face, financial infidelity looks like a simple problem of trust.  And while that is true, it goes deeper than that.  Like so much of our lives with partners, a lack of trust boils down to a delicate, fragile, painful connection to our partner.  That fragile connection is a symptom of an even larger issue… safety.

How safe do you feel coming clean to your partner about the debt, savings, or decisions you made without them?  How safe do you feel when you suspect they are hiding something from you?

What not to do next

Counterintuitively, I recommend not coming clean all at once.  Just ripping off that band aid might feel good to you, but it may be devastating to your partner.  In an upcoming article I’ll talk more about healthy steps you can take to both feel safe when talking about financial infidelity.

What you CAN do right now

Go slow.  Be gentle with yourself and your partner.  I know what I’m asking for, and I know how much this hurts you (yes, even if you’re the one hiding things).  Being patient with yourself and others is much MUCH harder than just exposing this wound, and potentially wounding your partner.

Want to just unload on someone for 15 minutes?Let’s talk.

You can schedule a free call with me and just share.  No judgment, no commitment, just listening.


One last thing…

You are so much closer to being on the other side of this than it seems right now!  I’ve seen many couples begin the conversation around financial infidelity so deeply hurting that it doesn’t seem possible that they could ever feel safe with each other again, and then a few months later they are past it.

Imagine making decisions with your partner and feeling heard and safe.  Whether you seek out financial coaching or not, you CAN heal from this!

Next Recommended Article: Financial Resilience After Divorce