How Financial Infidelity Can Hurt Your Relationship

When it comes to romantic relationships, trust might just be the quality that trumps everything else. In data from Match's Singles in America survey, more daters (94%) consider trust to be more important in a relationship than any other attribute. Likewise, a survey by The Knot revealed that infidelity took the top spot when ranking relationship deal breakers.

If a couple wants to keep the love alive, trust and honesty are essential, according to experts. "To trust means to rely on another person because you feel safe with them and have confidence that they will not hurt or violate you. Trust is the foundation of relationships because it allows you to be vulnerable and open up to the person without having to defensively protect yourself," Dr. Sabrina Romanoff, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University, told Verywell Mind.

Trust can be broken with major missteps like cheating or breaking a promise. But one type of betrayal that you might not notice — or may even be guilty of doing yourself — is financial infidelity.

What is financial infidelity?

Infidelity doesn't have to involve a love triangle between three people — sometimes it can involve you, your partner, and money instead. Dasha Kennedy, a financial coach and wellness expert at The Knot, told Well+Good that any deception regarding money in your relationship can be considered financial infidelity. That could include hiding how much money you have, how you spend it, or other matters related to your financial accounts.

A 2019 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research broke it down another way. The researchers defined financial infidelity as "engaging in any financial behavior expected to be disapproved of by one's romantic partner and intentionally failing to disclose this behavior to them." They note that secretly setting aside money to buy a gift for the other person, for example, doesn't fit their definition because it likely wouldn't result in disapproval. Some examples of financial infidelity discussed in the study include lying about purchases, hiding the amount of money you have in savings, secretly gambling, not disclosing debt or investments, and lying about lending money to someone else.

How lying about finances impacts your relationship

If you've ever watched someone — especially a parent — hide a new pair of shoes or fib about a bill payment, being dishonest about money might seem fairly innocuous and even normal. However, financial infidelity can destroy your relationship with your significant other over time. According to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Financial Therapy, 76% of respondents said that financial infidelity hurt their relationship, while 10% claimed it led to their divorce. Though sneaking away with a secret lover might seem like the worst thing you could do, not all agree. Susanna Abse, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, shared with The Guardian that financial infidelity "might be even more painful for people than sexual infidelity."

Michele Paiva, a finance therapist, even asserts that keeping money matters private can be a kind of abuse and manipulation, especially when both people are impacted by each other's financial decisions. She also adds that financial infidelity can often grow out of sexual infidelity, where a partner tries to cover the money trail associated with their affair. Additionally, Paiva says that financial abuse, including financial infidelity, often coincides with other forms of domestic abuse.

What if you keep your finances separate?

Some couples, especially early in their relationships, may enjoy the privacy and independence that comes with separate finances. And as MoneyHelper points out, you don't need to start opening up about your bank statements and spending habits until you start living together and sharing expenses, like rent and utilities.

However, money will still play a role in your relationship, no matter which dating stage you're at. "Whether or not you've chosen to merge your finances with a partner, your financial situation will likely affect your relationship," Maya Maria Brown, a relationship expert, explained to Well+Good. "For example, if your partner wants to go on lavish vacations and expects to split the bill, but that's not in your budget, you'd need to talk about your monetary approach to vacation planning. Or, if you're expecting to receive an inheritance and plan to donate a large portion of it, but your partner would like you to keep it for your future together, there's a discussion to be had there."

For married couples, being on the same page about finances is especially important. Depending on where you live, you may be legally responsible for each other's debts, even if one partner is unaware of them (per Experian).

Why financial infidelity happens

Though financial infidelity is best avoided in relationships, it's not uncommon. A poll by CreditCards indicated that around one in three people have cheated financially while in a committed relationship. And younger adults are even more likely to commit financial infidelity, with 61% of Gen Zers and 48% of millennials admitting to doing so.

So why do so many of us lie or keep secrets about money? One major reason comes down to a fear of being judged. "As adults, problems with managing money can make you feel less than, and worried about what people will think of you," Beverly Harzog, a credit card expert and writer, told BBC. To make matters worse, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Marketing Research confirmed that "tightwads" and "spendthrifts" are often attracted to each other. There's a good chance, then, that you and your other half don't see eye to eye on money matters.

As a result, one partner may not divulge details about their spending, investments, and other financial decisions to sidestep conflict or embarrassment. This can be especially true for those who grew up witnessing adults argue about money. Another explanation for financial infidelity: a lack of commitment. As Susanna Abse remarked to The Guardian, "I think if you're stashing money away, you're not really in the relationship entirely. [...] You've got one foot out."

How to spot financial infidelity

If you're concerned your partner may be misleading you about money, ideally, a direct but gentle conversation is enough to get them to come clean. But if that doesn't work, some clues might give away their shady behavior. A survey by U.S. News & World Report revealed that seeing a large purchase was the most common way people learned about their partner's financial infidelity, followed by noticing that account balances were off. Others found out when they came across a statement or bill for a secret account, discovered packages, or realized their partner was trying to hide their activity on electronic devices.

The experts at Forbes offer similar signs to look for, including unusual credit card statements and changed passwords on online banking accounts. They also add other red flags, like having your name removed from joint accounts, making large purchases without mutual agreement, and avoiding discussing important financial decisions.

Tips to initiate money talks in your relationship

If you've realized you and your partner are on totally different pages when it comes to finances, an open discussion is the best way to repair the situation. Depending on the extent of the financial infidelity, couples counseling may be necessary to bridge the gap. Your money talk with your significant other should be free of judgment or blame — instead, focus on financial goals and devising a plan to reach them together. You may also want to share your individual "money stories," or the beliefs and values you were taught about finances since childhood.

In most cases, one conversation won't be enough to overcome financial cheating. Michelle Jeanfreau, associate professor of child and family sciences at the University of Southern Mississippi, and Jenny Olson, associate professor of marketing at Indiana University, recommended to BBC that couples schedule a regular time to discuss budgets and other financial updates. During these talks, be transparent and lay out all bills and account statements. And don't forget to rebuild the trust that was broken. Just like with other types of infidelity, it may take time to feel secure in the relationship again. Accept your role in the situation, and gradually take steps to reconnect and recommit to each other.