Are you financially cheating on your partner? Everything you need to know about financial infidelity

Till debt do us part.

Harper's Bazaar India

Have you watched Jab We Met? If you’re nodding, like I hope you are, answer me this. What do you think happened to Aditya and Geet after they got married? After a long and convoluted journey (literally and metaphorically), they finally declare their love for each other, reassuring us that we can find our soulmate even in the most hopeless places. But what did their relationship look like once the curtain dropped and the credits rolled? Did they spend the rest of their lives madly in love without any hiccups? We hope, but that’s not realistic. If there is one thing we know for certain it’s that no matter how perfect your partner is, every relationship has its quirks and qualms. 

If you think about it, most relationship problems can be divided into three categories—the absolute deal breakers, the annoyances that can be worked through, and then there are those issues that you don’t know what to do with. Those are problems that make you want to change your relationship status to ‘it’s complicated’ and they fall right in the centre of this little Venn diagram. For instance, how do you think Geet would’ve reacted if she found out that the seemingly loaded Aditya was actually drowning in debt and was lying to her about his finances all along? Would she walk away or would she stay and work through this turmoil? What we’ve just described is not a one-off occurrence and it has a name—financial infidelity.  
According to a 2022 survey by US News & World Report, as many as one in three couples deal with financial infidelity in the US alone. This gives us an idea of what the statistics could be around the globe, and it’s staggering. Besides, it’s not news that money is one of the biggest topics of disagreement among couples. 

What is financial infidelity?  

While the word infidelity brings to mind racy images of your partner in bed with someone else, we must understand that not all cheating is sexual. However, unlike physical infidelity, financial is not so clear-cut. What counts as duplicitous independent expenditures? Dr Nisha Khanna, a counselling psychologist and certified EQ coach explains the phenomenon of financial infidelity as “a situation wherein one partner takes significant monetary decisions without consulting with the other partner. It can also be understood as an act of deception by one partner in a relationship where finances are combined. ”  

Money is a difficult topic to address and when you add the pressures of a relationship to it, it can become quite the stressor. On the other hand, how can you expect to build a life together if you keep your partner in the dark about finances? Dr Maitri Chand, a marriage and family therapist, says, “It is a breach of trust in the person whereby the foundation of the relationship is impacted. It can also indicate a lack of trust in the self whereby you, for whatever reason, feel uncomfortable or scared to bring certain things up to your partner’s attention.” 
The question we should be asking though is—why are some people so tempted to hide their finances? The answer is not inexplicable. It’s either fear of how your partner will perceive you once they know about your insurmountable debt or like Dr Chand puts it, a lack of trust or security in the relationship. But when your finances are combined and you talk about things, it gets murky. A 2018 study showed 76 per cent of married couples involved in financial infidelity say the experience negatively impacted their relationship, and 10 per cent got divorced over it. 

If you want to avoid this sticky situation, nip it in the bud. Dr Khanna gives us some tell-tale signs to keep an eye out for. Just to clarify, this doesn’t mean you become suspicious of every financial move your partner makes, but it won’t hurt to be cautious. The signs include, “being unaware of cash transactions, being removed from a joint account, finding a new credit card, discovering new assets and possessions, not being aware of a loan and probably the one you can spot the most easily—unwillingness to discuss financial matters.”   

Can you bounce back?  

The answer to this question lies in two more questions—How big of a financial infidelity are you looking at (is it about a few extra dresses or gadgets or are there offshore accounts and complex financial trails involved?) and how badly do you want the relationship to work? Couples can come back from anything as long as they are willing to put in the work and go the extra thousand miles. 

Dr Chand says, “The first stage would be to accept that something like this has happened. After the acceptance comes the difficult part, forgiveness. The trust that has been breached needs to be rebuilt. These are quite similar to the stages a couple goes through when there is either an emotional infidelity or a sexual infidelity in a relationship.  

It’s only natural that the partner that was on the receiving end of this infidelity would be hypervigilant. They might be extremely anxious about their future and their security in the relationship. Dr Chand says, “The couple must learn to identify their fears. They must learn to communicate their fears, wants and hopes openly. However, at the heart of this are also conflict-resolution skills. The couple might have very different conflict-resolution skills, so they need to work on coming on the same page so that each partner can feel understood and they can develop their capacity to understand their partner as well.” 

Further, Dr Chand suggests that certain ground rules need to be established. For instance, the couple needs to talk about expenses over a certain amount and monthly or weekly budgeting meetings need to be held. At the end of the day though, effective communication is the key to financial security.