What is financial infidelity? And what is financial intimacy? The notion of being open and honest about money is one thing, but financial intimacy is something else entirely.
In previous posts, I’ve touched on the topic of money problems that predict divorce, and best practices for handing love and money. Recently I’ve discussed Kakeibo, the Japanese budgeting as a spiritual practice and psychological discipline in marriage.
But the focus of this blog post is to discuss the bedrock of financial infidelity and financial intimacy, which is the quality of a couple’s communication.
To have independent experiences, some spouses may sock money aside from time to time. Or a partner may be saving for a gift or a vacation. Minor money diversions are often only an expression of independent thinking.
Here’s the problem. Attitudes toward money are deeply intimate. They are so intimate that Gottman says that marital discussions about money aren’t about money.
They are about values and meaning.
Money conversations typically involve baggage from our families of origin, intense, sometimes fearful emotional reactivity, and our sense of personal autonomy and agency.
In other words, it’s a hell of a lot easier to not talk about it because research tells us that it’s not only perhaps the most challenging marital conversation, it’s how we define ourselves.
The most important thing is to understand your spouse’s family of origin and financial past. Attitudes about money can differ significantly. It seems that many of us are not only dodging the chance for financial intimacy by avoiding conversations…we’re actually lying to our partners about money.
31% of American spouses with blended finances admit to lying about money to their partner at one point or another. A similar number reported to researchers that their partner deceived them.
Because these conversations are complicated and often bring up a painful past, spouses avoid financial intimacy and slide into financial infidelity.
It’s a zero-sum game. Money is one of those hot topics where you’re either HOT ( Honest, Open and Transparent) or COLD ( Controlling, Obsfuscating, Lying, or Deceiving).
Money is power. So it follows that control, anxiety, fear, and worry color these marital conversations. Spouses often project a false persona about money. Because to delve into your relationship with money is to engage ghosts from the past.
What kind of financial infidelity are we talking about? Research from ForbesWoman and the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) and conducted by Harris Interactive, surveyed over 2,000 U.S. spouses.
Most offenses were hiding money, nor disclosing minor purchases, and hiding credit card bills. The research also revealed that many spouses admitted to hiding major purchases, having hidden assets, and even lying about how much they earn, and how much they owe.
I had a client once who made a 3 million dollar real estate investment without disclosing it to his wife. But when the deal went sour, he had to discuss it, and, as expected, she was less than pleased about it.
Science-based couples therapy can help you achieve financial intimacy..if you’re motivated to get there.
Most spouses have a reactive, knee-jerk response to money issues. Slow down. Where did you learn that particular attitude about saving, investing, spending, etc.? If you can slow down and ask, “where did I first learn that?” It will help your partner understand your particular beliefs about how money should be used…or not used.
Differentiation around money is useful. Just as you have firm beliefs about money, so does your spouse.
Difficulty in accepting value differences around money is why serious money differences contribute to 27% of all American divorces. Deception and lies by omission are the easy way out of these emotional gridlocks over money.
Power and control are at the heart of financial infidelity. Respect is squandered as deception compounds over time. Research tells us that most partners who engage in financial infidelity hoard cash (58%).
Other less common transgressions involve secret accounts (15%), hiding bills (30%), and lying about debt and how much they earn (11%). But these conflicts don’t have to be avoided.
As long as you accept that in most cases, there is no right or wrong, these differences can be a source of deeper intimacy.
Fear of conflict is also at the heart of financial infidelity. Gottman suggests that money conflicts can be recruited to increase intimacy. Talk about how money can be used to create attachment. For example, “I want to spend on high-quality food because I want our family to be healthy,” or “I will feel loved if you help me plan our next vacation.”
Try to find 3 specific uses of money that will increase the bond between you. Be generous with one another around this exercise. Accept your differences, and don’t try to prevail over your partner. Talk about money through a lens of love and emotion. Gottman advises couple s to see money as an opportunity to accept influence and invest in one another.
Last year I worked with a couple, Steve and Tara (not their real names, of course). They ‘ve been married for nearly 2o years and had a great marriage, even while raising 2 special needs kids.
Steve has a remodeling business, but it fell on hard times back in 2008, and he needed an infusion of capital to modernize his showrooms and stay competitive.
Because of the banking crisis at the time, Steve could not get a bank loan.
Reluctantly, he asked his elderly mother for financial help, which she willingly provided. Steve was the oldest of 3 boys, and he was close to his brothers.
Steve told Tara about the loan in a matter of fact way. In couples therapy, Steve emphasized that he was utterly “transparent and open” with Tara about the details for the loan.
I agreed with part of what he was saying.
But Steve was not open and transparent about his feelings about needing a loan from his mother, and the varying degrees of resentment his younger brothers had about this financial arrangement.
As his feelings festered for the next decade, he slid into a more profound depression. He neither acknowledged or discussed this with Tara, as he gradually became more emotionally unavailable and remote.
In her one-on-one session, Tara told me that over the next 8 years, Steve changed. He bickered with her about her spending, insisting that she had to cut “cut back.”
Her eyes grew wet as she described a pervasive black mood that enveloped her husband. Steve became critical and uncommunicative. And this went until 2 years ago when “all hell broke loose.”
The presenting problem in their couples therapy was that Steve was caught sexting with a woman he met online.
During their couples therapy intensive, Steve disclosed the shame he felt for “climbing over his brothers,” to get help from his mother. “I feel like I failed both my families,” he said.
Tara and Steve had to process how his profound shame led to his withdrawing from Tara and then distracting himself with low-grade online dalliances. He apologized to Tara and discussed his feelings in more depth than ever before.
Steve also discussed his family of origin’s attitudes toward money, his role as the “golden-child” first-born, and his grief and embarrassment for needing a financial life-line from his mother.
Sometimes the problems that drive a couple to seek science-based couples therapy have to be emotionally excavated. Steve was not a compulsive cheater and may not have met the clinical criteria for a “sex-addict.” But while Steve’s behavior fell short of having sex with other women, he was sporadically self-medicating with inappropriate online behaviors...and getting caught brought his struggles out in the open for the first time in many years.
Steve’s lack of financial intimacy with Tara, his ensuing depression, and the emotional withdrawal were at the heart of their marital problems…but Tara didn’t know anything about this.
“A man is as likely to ask for help with depression as he is to ask for directions.” Terry Real
Money is loaded with power and meaning that can make can discussions heated and hurtful. Arguments about money aren’t about money. They are about our dreams, our fears, and our inadequacies. Kyle Benson.
Good couples therapy will help couples like Steve and Tara understand how their attitudes toward money express their sense of themselves in relationship to others.
Money is power, and it typically means different things to different people. With appropriate help, couples can learn how to use these superficial conflicts to avoid financial infidelity and achieve deeper financial intimacy.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He is the Blog Editor. He currently works online seeing couples from Massachusetts at Couples Therapy Inc. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.