The Other Half is a biweekly relationships column that delves inside the male mind.
In this time of the global-economic-downslump-disaster-apocalypse, Canadians are becoming more vigilant than ever over their expenses. For couples, says Fabio Ventolini, a certified financial planner at the ECC Group in Toronto, this means getting intimate with your other half's spending habits.
"Couples are running down their cash flows, going through the credit-card statement and seeing where all their money is spent," he says.
For some relationships, these audits are likely a get-to-know-you event long overdue, but the increasing transparency also worries me. People need to be able to do some things without answering to anyone. And after all, love never paid your bills. Why should it be monitoring your spending?
I used to think utter honesty (and daily confession) was the key to a successful relationship, something I witnessed between my mother and stepfather, who've been together 20 years and whom I long considered the paragon of a healthy relationship. That was before my mother told me a few months ago that my stepfather had been keeping a secret bank account.
He wasn't doing anything too lurid with the hidden funds: He opened the account so that he, a foodie, could indulge in the occasional overpriced gourmet lunch with his kids, the final tab of which would have given my mother a minor coronary.
In addition to avoiding having to ask for her approval each time, he told me, he had another reason for opening the account: "In my mind, 'I' am part of 'we' but am also just me. I insist on recognizing both aspects to this minor extent."
Bill Clinton would be proud.
I've come around to liking this idea of existential autonomy in a relationship.
We've been persistently told we must communicate, communicate and communicate with our partners, but maybe men need to reclaim a space in their hearts and minds where their significant other has no access.
(Women need it too, sure, but double standards being the biological imperative they are, I'll only allow this inside a parenthetical note.)
The personal bank account, then, is a source from which one can live up to one's personal potential: potential rounds at the bar during lunch; potential memberships to not-safe-for-wife Internet sites; a potentially recession-unjustified set of golf clubs.
It's hard to find a psychologist who will agree that keeping secrets from your spouse is okay (I know - I looked), but Anita Kelly, a professor at the University of Notre Dame and author of The Psychology of Secrets, will at least go part of the way.
"I encourage people to consider the likelihood that there will be times when keeping a secret is not harmful and may even be beneficial," she writes in the book, advocating the idea that sharing information is a choice and not a necessity.
She lays out some of the things to consider: Does your partner really expect to know a piece of private information? If you kept it secret, would he or she eventually find out? (If so, better fess up beforehand.) And, most notably, is your partner really the best person to share the information with?
"I play reasonably high-stakes poker and I could easily lose $2,500 in a night," Dr. Kelly says. After one particularly bad loss, she came home and told her husband. He became judgmental, telling her to "think of all the people we could have helped with that money." But poker is something that brings Dr. Kelly personal enjoyment, and she always comes out ahead over time. Once he'd calmed down, they agreed it would be better if he didn't hear the ongoing details of her gambling, but would just be told the final tally once the year was over.
"It's really hard to keep a terrible streak to oneself," says Dr. Kelly, "but I just choose not to tell my husband. He's not the appropriate confidant."
Excited by this idea of delayed confession, I told her about an old friend who uses unmonitored cash from a private bank account to visit strip clubs, a salve to his wandering eye. "It's saving my relationship," he told me recently. Certainly it's not a permanent solution, but the strip club - and the account from which the bills placed in a G-string are withdrawn - represents the temporary workshop space for his brain to sort out commitment issues.
Faced with this scenario, Dr. Kelly backed off a bit from the need for keeping secrets, emphasizing privacy instead (maybe she was thinking of her husband receiving a lap dance).
"If a man has a secret bank account, he could harbour some ill will towards his partner, because he's pissed that he has to keep that from her," she says, suggesting that couples can keep certain things private, but should set guidelines for what they'd rather not hear about.
Relationships are built on compromise, I suppose, and this one sounds doable. You keep some of the details locked away in your own safe; but the privacy, like a good loan, is pre-approved and will not end in the bursting of an inflated relationship estate bubble.
This type of arrangement is working out for my mother and stepfather, but I have to admit I'm still intrigued by the secret bank account, which Mr. Ventolini tells me is not hard to accomplish.
If you want to open one, let me know and I can give you some tips. I won't tell anyone.
Micah Toub's memoir, Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks, will be published in April, 2010.