If you think infidelity only occurs between the sheets, think again.
It can also occur via secret purchases, hidden accounts, and surreptitiously withdrawn savings. Experts call it "financial infidelity," and it basically covers any monetary activity that partners hide from each other.
Among couples who have combined finances, more than two in five people admit to hiding cash or bills or purchases, or outright lying about earnings and debt, according to new American survey data from the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE).
Virtually the same number of respondents, 40 per cent, say their partner has done the same to them – that they know of.
The problem appears to be getting worse. "We have been doing this poll for 10 years, and the numbers have increased as long as we have been tracking it," said Paul Golden, spokesman for Denver-based NEFE. "When we started, the percentage of partners doing this was in the low 30s, and now it is over 40."
It even happens to financial experts. "Assets were hidden, things were offshore, accounts were in other people's names. To this day, I still don't know where half the money was," said Cary Carbonaro, managing director of New York-based United Capital, of her relationship with her ex-husband.
And lest you think financial infidelity is a relatively harmless indiscretion: In Carbonaro's case, it led to divorce, and four years of messy wrangling in the courts.
Whether you are dealing with a little white lie about a pair of shoes or a huge whopper like a hidden account in the Cayman Islands, you need to confront it head-on. Here are some ways to get started:
Have the talk
There is no getting around the fact that honesty is really the only way forward. It will be awkward at first, but come clean to your partner, talk honestly about the emotions that drove the behavior – like shame or embarrassment, which happen to all of us – and work together on solutions.
If a one-on-one talk is not ideal – perhaps because of issues of intimidation or control in the relationship – then consider having a third party mediate the topic, such as a marital therapist or a financial planner.
Very often, the reason for financial secrecy is that people just are not quite sure what their partner will think of a purchase. So instead of bringing it up, they just stay quiet. And then little lies turn into bigger ones.
A helpful fix is to mutually set a particular dollar amount – say, $100 – below which you do not have to clear anything with your partner. Above that (or whatever amount you agree on), you have to talk about it, to ensure the family budget is not unilaterally being busted.
Without guideposts in place, overspending could easily run wild. "We had a friend who lived very high on the hog, enjoying all manner of luxuries – even considering a heliport at his second home to get there sooner," says Leon LaBrecque, a financial planner in Troy, Michigan. "He died prematurely, and left a colossal pile of debt and tax bills."
Take it seriously
When confronted with financial infidelity, the partner at fault might just try to brush it off. Wrong approach.
In the NEFE survey, 75 per cent of people said financial infidelity impacted the relationship – leading to arguments, eroding trust, even sparking separation or divorce.
On the plus side, some respondents said that grappling with financial infidelity actually made their relationship better in the long run. As the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant. So aim for that.
"That's the silver living of all this," says NEFE's Golden. "If it occurs, then at least you can start having these important conversations."