When we hear the word ‘infidelity,’ we tend to think about romantic unfaithfulness: a flirtatious exchange that goes too far, perhaps, or worse, an affair.
But just as finances have their place in a relationship, infidelity also has its place in finances.
An act of “financial infidelity” can include anything from one partner draining joint savings or running up joint credit, to having a huge personal debt they’ve yet to come clean about, to flat out lying about their income.
According to a 2019 survey from Credit Canada, 36% of those in a relationship have lied to a partner about a financial matter. And according to a report from CreditCards.com, Millennials are the generation most likely to commit acts of financial infidelity. Some 57% have deceived their partners about a financial matter, compared with 45% of Gen Xers and 37% of Baby Boomers.
What does something like financial infidelity do to a couple? And is there a way to recover?
‘Break in trust’
Financial infidelity will often result in similar feelings to romantic infidelity.
“There’s a real break in trust,” explains Chris Northey, a counsellor at Credit Canada. “Like a marriage infidelity, financial infidelity can really create a big wedge between people.”
That wedge is often something that gets built over time. Northey says it’s not unusual for him to see clients in his day-to-day work who are actively keeping financial secrets from their partners.
“We get people coming in all the time saying ‘I don’t want my spouse to know about this,’” he says, usually about the debts that they have. “A lot of times clients are very secretive.”
That makes sense, because feelings of extreme shame are tied up in the lie. And depending on how long you’ve been with your partner for, or whether or not you live together, chances are they’re going to be able to pick up on this. So you’re probably not going to be able to hide it for long.
“When you’re ashamed and bothered by something, probably you're not sleeping,” says Northey. “It’s going to affect your moods and certainly your partner’s going to notice those things. They’re going to see something’s wrong.”
Just like when a parent delivers the oh-so-gruelling “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed,” response, when your partner finds out what the problem is, they’re probably going to be less upset about the action itself and more upset about the fact that you lied to them.
“A lot of people say what bothers them most is just the secrecy and lies,” says Northey.
“Sometimes coming clean may be best. At least when you're honest with the person a lot of the time they can deal with the problem.”
But how do you go about doing that?
“First of all, the transgressor really has to be open about what they’ve done and honest about it,” says Northey.
If the trust has really eroded, this could mean the end of the relationship. But hopefully it will open the door to recovery. If that option is on the table, the effort will need to come from both sides of the partnership.
“It takes both parties to be able to repair the relationship,” explains Northey, who says this could take the shape of coming up with a financial plan together (either with or without a professional), to get back on a joint financial track.
“They may need counselling as well, either marriage counselling, or if the person has a gambling problem, maybe gambling or addiction counselling.”
This isn’t going to be an easy process, though. Healing and regaining the other’s trust will be a slow burn, something that simply requires time and hard work.
It’s important, too, not to become narrow-minded about your partner’s transgression. Did they go behind your back simply because they’re a bad person, or bad with money?
“It may be that they don’t have enough income and maybe they need the other person to help them out a little more,” explains Northey.
The important thing to remember is that we all make mistakes. “Who among us has not transgressed one time in their relationships?” says Northey, who believes it’s possible to find a way to heal after everything is out in the open and each partner commits to finding a solution.
“It’s something that takes time and hard work,” he says. “I think if you’re both willing to work at it, it’s going to take equal effort from both parties — especially the transgressor — to confess what they’ve done and be willing to do something to try to repair it.”