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The Loud Problem of Keeping Financial Secrets

The psychology of debt in relationships.

Key points

  • Two significant risks to mental health that personal debt can have on relationships are stress and shame.
  • Isolation or ignoring the problem of financial stress has more negative consequences.
  • Financial infidelity and financial intimacy can have a substantial influence on personal growth.

You have probably heard how devastating money arguments can be in a relationship. The worse a financial situation is within a relationship, the more harmful it can be to that relationship.

Financial conflict is frequently cited as a reason for divorce, and the stress of financial difficulties only increases the pressure on a relationship. Debt creates worry and elevates stress. It also affects how people view relationships, behavior, and self-worth.

A recent poll from Chime revealed that one in 10 adults don’t know their partner’s salary, and close to one in five are uncertain about each other’s savings or even where they spend most of their money. This dynamic can develop while people are dating and linger deep into a marriage. It can also lay the groundwork for other problematic behaviors like keeping financial secrets and avoiding personal conversations.

Financial Infidelity vs. Intimacy

One thing is clear: Withholding information and being vague about details in a relationship is rarely good. Of course, there is a type of scaling for all issues in a relationship. A silly argument about a misunderstanding doesn’t create the same hurt. That’s the difference between “financial infidelity” and “financial intimacy.” In financial therapy, those terms span all types of relationships.

If someone makes a large purchase or takes a lump sum from a bank account and doesn’t share that information with the other person interested in that money, that will likely cause relationship harm. Whether they're in a romantic couple or a business partnership, such non-disclosure comes with serious repercussions. Of course, that sounds like infidelity.

Conversely, what if a couple chooses to be transparent about economic decisions before they happen? That is financial intimacy. Money is personal, so regular conversations about finances can create closeness. Here are some practical tips to make that happen:

  • Reaffirm the relationship's value. Talk about money because of love, not suspicion. That creates the best relationship possible.
  • Make money a “safe place.” These sensitive talks need to be safe. While it is expected to have feelings around money in conversation with the other person, try to minimize feelings of shame and avoid blaming language as much as possible.
  • Establish a team mindset. Create "invitations to empathize" or safe moments to understand each other’s financial insecurities or questions. As uncomfortable as discussions may be, isolation has adverse effects. That’s why you have a partner and don’t face life’s struggles alone.
  • Set up ground rules. Effective communication requires clear rules about what is acceptable and unacceptable. Before the talk, decide on the behaviors or topics that you want left out of the conversation to make progress.

Personal Deposits vs. Withdrawals

When someone is stressed, the idea of being “their best self” erodes slowly. Make stress tangible: a “thing” that can be seen, heard, or noticed.

Since this is a discussion about money, think about stress like a bank account. Any life stressor is a significant withdrawal on emotional wellness. Likewise, a benefit to mental health (e.g., vacation, good news, a long weekend) can become a deposit into that account. If couples decide to share finances or not, those moments will affect that maintenance.

Asking questions like “What do you need from me to make you feel safe?” or “How can we solve this problem together?” creates deposits of security and peace in a relationship. When things get out of hand and personal, blame enters the equation and becomes a life stressor or withdrawal from that security and peace.

Like maintaining a bank account, that mental health account needs routine and care:

  • Plan against debt together. Reduce withdrawals by figuring out the family or relationship budget. Learn to operate and manage it effectively and monthly.
  • This is not “one and done.” Financial conversations are crucial to the mental and emotional health of any relationship. Whenever a concern or question arises, welcome the talk and find a solution together.
  • Know the role of each person. No two people have the same relationship with money. It's baggage brought into the relationship, so unpack feelings about managing money and planning finances.

Whether someone in the relationship spent money on a pair of shorts or a new car, any secret about money can be perceived as damaging if it is not shared and trusted.

Debt and other economic issues can become the most considerable burdens. Lift them as a team.

Conflict arises from a lack of openness or honesty about financial situations, which is normal. Debt may be considered taboo, but not in a close-knit relationship. Reservations about having those conversations are usually rooted in stress or shame, so invest time into the relationship by normalizing the issues.


More from Nathan Astle MFT, CFT-I
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