Before we tied the knot and merged our finances, my husband and I decided to each hang on to a credit card from our single days. Higher limits in case of an emergency and the ability to charge a surprise gift unnoticed solidified our decision. But as I scanned our joint credit card charges last month, I thought back to our individual cards and how easy it would be for either of us to be financially unfaithful.
Marital infidelity is widely known, but research shows that financial infidelity is on the rise. 41% of American adults reported that they’ve hidden accounts, debt, or spending habits from their partner. A recent survey determined that millennials are nearly twice as likely to hide money or accounts from partners than other generations.
Choosing to keep financial choices hidden from a loved one — no matter how seemingly harmless — can have significant repercussions for relationships and for your mental health.
Hiding Finances Breaks Trust
Deliberately concealing or lying about finances creates a barrier in even the strongest relationships. When exposed, it breaks down an essential component of partnerships: trust. Without the foundational element of trust, couples may face an uphill battle that would require time, focused effort, and professional support to rebuild.
“It is difficult to repair trust once it has been broken,” said Washington D.C.-based Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, CFTP. “When one of the partners withholds information from the other or covers it up, it is normal to feel betrayed, guilty, anxious, or depressed. All these can lead to problems and affect our mental health.”
Megan McCoy, a professor at Kansas State University who specializes in financial therapy, told NPR that money fights are often more intense and last longer because money relates to significant life events like college savings or retirement.
Realizing the deception from someone you love adds to the pain. “It’s hard to realize someone could be so fake to you, someone you thought you understood and could read,” she said.
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The Bigger the Secret, the Greater the Long-Term Stress
Living a double life riddled with worry can send stress levels skyrocketing. Will he discover that extra account? Will she find out about my compulsive gambling? Will he see my credit card debt? There are many stressors in everyday life — including some that may surprise you — but as the financial stakes get higher when you cheat financially, the stress levels will, too.
Long-term stress can have lasting impact on your health and negatively affect your immune, digestive, sleep, and reproductive systems. The National Institute of Mental Health warns that chronic stress can lead to complications like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and mental health conditions like depression. The financial choices you hide clearly have implications that can last long after a secret transaction.
Financial Anxiety is Amplified
Feeling nervous, sweating, increased heart rate, and having trouble sleeping are just a few of the common symptoms related to anxiety, which can develop from financial infidelity. We all experience these feelings from time to time, but in some cases, individuals can develop anxiety disorders, where the symptoms do not subside and often get worse over time. The inverse can also be true. A study by the Royal College of Physicians found that about half of people with problems like anxiety also struggle with problem debt.
Finances, in general, are a common source of anxiety. It’s one of the main issues couples fight about, and with Baby Boomers entering retirement, it’s become an even more significant issue. But it’s not just impacting older generations. A study from Northwestern Mutual found that nearly 25% of millennials have felt physically ill because of their finances and more than half have felt depressed. Tack on the secrecy and deceit interwoven in financial infidelity, and you’ll see how this form of cheating can make anxiety skyrocket.
The Lies Begin to Snowball
What’s the hurt of one trashed receipt, one big bet, or one private loan? It’s actually more dangerous than you think. The snowball effect applies to lying — no matter what the topic. Researchers who studied the brain activity of people who told small lies found that they were more likely to tell larger lies in the future.
“Whether it’s evading tax, infidelity, doping in sports, making up data in science, or financial fraud, deceivers often recall how small acts of dishonesty snowballed over time and they suddenly found themselves committing quite large crimes,” study co-author Tali Sharot said in a news article.
Because every couple is different, Catchings encourages us to think beyond generalizations. If there are no repercussions, the person may continue to be deceitful. He or she may instead feel remorseful and stop the behavior.
“The main point is to recognize that we need the help and to be able to work with our fears,” Catchings said. “It is much better to be honest and work through relationship issues centered on money as early as we can, instead of having to deal with a mountain of stories and lies that can truly destroy the relationship.”
Working together as a couple in the spirit of openness, you can set the road map that will lead to a strengthened relationship and freedom on the way to recovery.