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Till Debt Do Us Part

From undisclosed debt to unstated resentment, couples increasingly lead covert financial lives. This secrecy creates a new form of infidelity one that's more dangerous than sexual betrayal.

Emilie Pooler's suspicions were aroused one night when she called her Lawrenceville, New Jersey, home and her husband, Paul Rybinski, didn't answer.

"I was with the girls visiting my family, and he was home alone," Emilie recalls. Later, when she did get hold of him and asked where he had been, he didn't lie. "Well," he said, "there's this woman whose husband died..."

Paul and Emilie both test developers at Education Testing Service in Princeton and parents to two young girls, consider themselves prudent by most standards. They agree on most financial decisions. They own a three-bedroom town house, never carry a balance on their credit cards and splurge only on vacations.

But Paul has a comic-book collection—about 9,000 strong, most acquired before they were married—and it's Emilie's pet peeve. "When I found out that they were worth about $34,000, I thought, 'Great, we can sell them and use the money as a down payment on a house.' But I had to come to the realization that the collection isn't mine; it came before the marriage. If he wants to keep it, that's fine—so long as he's not using our money to buy more!"

Paul now sells 20 to 30 of his comic books at a time on eBay and uses the profits to purchase one or two comics in stellar condition. "My collection is getting smaller but is of more value," he says. "I consider it an investment."

The night that Emilie called, Paul was with the widow—rifling through her late husband's comic books, in the hopes of adding to his own collection. He never did tell Emilie how much he spent.

Keeping secrets about money is not only tempting in our cultural carnival of consumption, it's also on the rise. The ability to spend and borrow money impulsively has never been greater, with ubiquitous ATMs, Internet banking and online shopping, to say nothing of refinancing deals and new credit card offers arriving almost daily in the mail. Consumer debt, excluding mortgages, has doubled in the past decade. It now averages close to $20,000 per household. This isn't just fodder for economists; it gets between the sheets in almost every marriage in America.

In addition, because the age at which people wed is rising, partners bring extensive monetary histories to their union, just as they accrue complex sexual pasts. Many individuals enter marriage with undisclosed financial allegiances outside the relationship. Given the avoidance, accessibility and ambivalence that now swirl around about money, it's creating an explosive new dynamic in relationships. However small the money deceptions are, however well they are rationalized, they can nevertheless create fissures in a relationship that feel like flagrant betrayal to the other partner. What's worse, a breach of fiscal trust is more destabilizing to marriage than a sexual affair. The kicker is, it can hurt couples long after their relationship bites the dust.

The Last Taboo

If you are in a serious relationship, no matter how long you've been together or how much money you have, your next fight is likely to be about money. Money is inextricably connected to our hopes and our dreams, our sense of security and self-worth, almost all of our core emotions and familial expectations.

Disagreements about money are also more intense, and more negative, than those about other topics. Due to an invisible web of intention that underlies financial transactions, we endlessly attribute unspoken motives and consequences to the financial choices people make. When tweaked, the delicate threads of these decisions, woven throughout our homes and around our daily activities, can instantly become high-tension wires.

Even in platonic relationships, a simple task—say, determining how much to spend on a birthday gift—can give rise to a tangle of contradictory assumptions: Are gifts a symbol of how much someone is valued, or merely a token of affection? Should you spend about what you expect someone to spend on you, or think nothing at all about reciprocity?

Discussing money, however, has always been a social taboo, one we've been taught to avoid since childhood ("Don't ask how much that cost! That's rude!"). You probably know more about your friends' sex lives than how much money they make or owe. And discussing it with a lover is more fraught still, as no one wants to be perceived as a gold digger.

The Negative Dowry

Most adults—67 percent of women, 74 percent of men—enter marriage with at least some debt. Of those with debt, about half owe more than $5,000, primarily from auto loans, credit cards, student loans and medical bills, research associate David Schramm of Utah State University found in a study of 1,010 newlyweds. This "negative dowry" places a tremendous strain on new marriages at a time when couples would rather be focusing on future financial goals. "It's pretty common to find out that the person you married has more debt and less income than you realized," says Scott Stanley, professor of psychology at the University of Denver and coauthor of You Paid How Much for That? How to Win at Money Without Losing at Love. "Essentially they had other relationships with money going on that you didn't know about. The opportunity to feel betrayed is huge."

Yet the way a couple deals with money disagreements and disappointments can predict the long-term success, or failure, of the relationship. "Money is the intersecting point where couples make most of their decisions," says Stanley, who with colleague Howard Markman conducted a survey of nearly a thousand committed couples across the country. "Money arguments have added potency because they allow for power and control dynamics to be triggered. It's an area of conflict where one partner can make unilateral decisions that affect both partners, sometimes for the rest of their lives."

Take the case of Donald, a farmer who got a loan from the bank to purchase seed in the spring. The whole economy of his farm and family depended on his planting. While he was accruing $35,000 for repayment in their joint bank account, his wife, Susann, was discovering Internet gambling. Soon the account balance was zero. Donald, in turn, lost all possibility of profit from the family farm's production and was burdened with debt for years to come.

"If your spouse makes a bad decision, even if you had no knowledge of that decision, when you're married you're treated as one financial entity," Stanley says. Even after a divorce, debt acquired by either party during the marriage is often considered communal responsibility.

Spouses—But Not Partners

Hidden financial dealings not only have legal and long-lasting consequences, they also take a high emotional toll on couples as well. Like all secrets, energy is required to maintain the deception, undermining the most important aspect of a good relationship—the intimacy that comes from letting down one's guard.

There are three important elements of safety in relationships: the ability to talk freely, safety from physical harm and a sense of security about the future, says Stanley. "The last thing in the world you want in a marriage is to feel that you have to protect yourself against your partner, or that you have to wall off a portion of your life. Money is a very potent context in which these forces get acted out."

By hiding information about expensive purchases, risky investments or debts that have accumulated to the point of crisis, he says, relationship land mines are planted that can explode with great force when triggered by outside events (when, say, creditors come calling or the Lexus is repossessed).

Even income secrets are not unusual, observes Barry McCarthy, a psychologist in Washington, D.C., and coauthor—with his wife, Emily—of Getting It Right the First Time: How to Build a Healthy Marriage. People may withhold information about their wages, assets and bonuses.

One husband, for example, claims he makes $120,000, and he and his wife live a fairly modest life. But the man actually makes $400,000 and keeps a separate bank account. He doesn't trust his wife. That's a typical pattern in financial dishonesty, says McCarthy—one spouse commits the "infidelity" but blames the other as the cause.

Should the hidden account be discovered, the partner who was formerly kept in the dark will think the other is hedging his bets and safeguarding individual interests over the couple's interests. "There's a sense that 'maybe you have this separate account in case you want to leave me,'" points out Scott Stanley. "The symbol becomes the problem itself."

In a society with such a high rate of divorce, isn't it prudent to maintain some autonomy and stash some cash? "Americans are so independent and have such easily triggered fears about enmeshment," Stanley reports. "But we've found that couples who operate completely independently financially don't do as well over time."

Stanley and his colleagues recommend that couples view themselves as two separate individuals with a shared third identity: me, you and us. "It's great to have options in life, but in such an affluent society, we are more apt to get into trouble," he says. "Couples must realize that, even when they aren't with their partner, there is still a boundary created by the relationship."

Not all financial infidelity is intentional. "People just fall into it—they don't think deeply about it," says Natalie Jenkins, coauthor of You Paid How Much for That? A lot of people soothe themselves by buying. Perhaps they feel "It's my turn, I deserve this. I'm not getting any younger," or "Rather than resent my partner over not buying this, I'm just going to charge it." Little dishonesties start growing, debts start mounting—and an avenue of intimacy is closed off.

Family therapist Kelly Simpson, director of the Active Relationships Center in Dallas, worked with a couple in which the wife took care of the bills. The woman also racked up $40,000 in debt doing what many women do—taking care of everyone else. Her husband had a strict sense of money's uses. Eventually, she needed to tell him that she was moving balances from one credit card to another. She sought the safety of the therapist's office to disclose the activity.

Just as with sexual affairs, Simpson says, the couple had to rebuild trust. The wife agreed to curtail her spending, go back to work and actively put money into her husband's account. The burden was on the transgressor to demonstrate trustworthiness, which she was able to do by opening the books to show her husband what she was paying and what she was spending.

"It's like President Reagan used to say about his dealings with the former Soviet Union," says Jenkins. "Trust, but verify."

An Open Affair With Wealth

A cigar may be just a cigar—but a checkbook is hardly ever just a checkbook. It's not so much a matter of math as the meaning of money, says Jenkins: power, freedom, escape, pleasure, security, identity, self-discipline, self-indulgence, competition and negotiation. Couples possess two value systems and two sets of needs, and money is a finite resource. Someone has to sacrifice at some point.

Rarely does an American go through a day without earning, spending or dealing with money in some form. Even when people sleep, their money gains interest, loses value and restlessly resides in wallets, IRAs, money markets and bank accounts. Money can be a magnet for all of the highly charged emotions hovering around the space between two people.

And fiscal self-control is more difficult today than in the past, when sidewalk barkers didn't boast "six months same as cash" and "no money down, no payments for a year." Consumption has been elevated to an art form, complete with megamalls, personal shoppers and stores that sell containers to hold more stuff.

Shopping is an act of affirmation and affiliation, a communal sport, a weekend pastime, an addiction and a designation in DSM-IV, psychiatry's diagnostic directory. In a media-saturated era, money buys both self-fulfillment and social acceptance—a lifestyle in which wants are transformed into needs. We come to believe that we are entitled to what those around us seem to have, and somehow spending $20,000 for a sofa appears perfectly normal.

"Some people are committing financial infidelity by hiding financial misbehavior," says Denver's Stanley. "Others are having an open affair with material wealth. That represents an alternative relationship that is undermining the quality of the marital relationship." The pressure on people to produce and to make money has become enormous. "Those who can do it are so busy doing it that they don't have much time to be in relationships," observes New York psychiatrist John Jacobs.

Seductive as materialism is, it's having a devastating effect on couples. It's creating an epidemic of people who are never satisfied. "Once you're married, if you feel you don't have enough, it's very easy to blame your spouse," says Jacobs, author of All You Need Is Love and Other Lies About Marriage. It's a logical consequence of the romantic belief that a spouse is supposed to complete us.

"Women complain that their husband has failed to provide the kind of support they expected, or that they have to work and don't want to," Jacobs reports. "Men complain that women demand too much of them and aren't carrying their fair share in the relationship. The disappointment drives a wedge between them."

Gina makes $50,000 a year, and her husband, Hank, makes two to three times more. They live in an area where the cost of living is so high that they haven't felt flush enough to fix up their home in more than a decade. Gina feels their unpainted house makes her look like the poorest person on the block and sees that lack as her husband's fault. Feeling attacked and resentful, Hank stands firm in his insistence that they don't have any money to spare for home-improvement projects. Jacobs encouraged Gina to approach Hank without blame. To her amazement, when she asked, "Honey, could we spend $6,500 to paint the house because it is very important to me?" he agreed.

"We're in an era of negotiated marriages, where we have to figure out how to respectfully deal with each other's differences," Jacobs says. "It can no longer be, 'My way or the highway.' This new kind of partnership, though it's clearly the better way to live our lives, isn't easy to achieve. Many people don't know how to win as a couple rather than for themselves." Hence the urge to stash away one's own earnings: A spouse becomes a potential drain on resources, not a partner in a long-term strategy.

Bait and Switch?

More than 60 percent of wives work outside the home, and both men and women are accommodating to this fact. Surveys show that men are taking on more of the household and parenting chores (although not yet half) and that couples are enjoying the higher standard of living that dual salaries provide. The majority of husbands, in fact, say they wouldn't mind if their wives earned more than they earn (nearly a third of working wives already make more, with another third earning around the same). Some men even admit to evaluating earnings potential in a prospective spouse, a sentiment unthinkable a few generations ago, when a working wife was an aberration, not a value-added proposition.

Outright economic gender reversal, in which a wife outearns her spouse substantially, can feel like a very subtle form of fiscal betrayal. Modern couples are the products of thousands of years of socialization that teaches us that it's the man's job to provide and the woman's job to stay home and be cared for and protected. "No matter how much we acknowledge that we want the world to change," Jacobs says, "it's still inside all of us."

If both spouses are perceived as giving what they can to the marriage, earnings may become just a part of a larger whole. But if one person feels that he or she is putting forth all of the effort and bearing all of the responsibility, resentments may fester and the off-kilter relationship is likely to crash.

Take Leigh, a public relations executive and divorced mother of one. "When we started out, he was eight years older, and I was fresh out of school. He wasn't making a lot, but I thought he had potential. I turned out to be the worker in the family, and he turned out to be the guy who couldn't get anything going. He would tell me, 'Go for it, you're the corporate person.' I thought he was proud of me. At the time, it really boosted my ego. In hindsight, I think I was being used."

After the baby arrived, her husband quit his job to stay home and freelance, while Leigh worked 60 to 70 hours a week. She was exhausted and began to resent the time away from her child as well as the pressures of being the primary breadwinner. After nearly a decade on the corporate fast track, two life-changing events occurred: Leigh's father got cancer, and she got a huge bonus that equaled almost a year's salary.

"My father's illness woke me up, and that bonus was my ticket out," she says. "I quit my job and started freelancing. I began to see what was happening at home. My husband was playing computer games all day. I was done."

The Stay-at-Home Bargain

Betrayal can sneak in the patio door if a woman decides to kick her career back a notch after her nurturing instinct is tripped by having a baby. Her husband may feel slighted that their comfortable lifestyle has shrunk to a single set of wages and resentful that his wife has broken an (unstated) marital agreement: the promise of a better lifestyle.

Before Martha Nolan and Mike McKenzie said "I do," they had several in-depth conversations about money. "I was 35 and he was 36, so we were more practical in some considerations than twentysomethings," says Martha, a business journalist in Atlanta. "We pretty much had full financial disclosure."

Mike, a regional manager in industrial sales, remembers it as "a businesslike negotiation connected to the subject of having children. For example, I said I would not pay for private school because it was so expensive. I believed we needed to put more of our money aside for retirement."

After a year of infertility treatments, Martha and Mike adopted a newborn. "Just becoming parents cost us $30,000," says Martha. "Then we had the expense of a child. At the same time my company moved to Florida, so I lost my job." As a new mom, instead of looking for a fulltime job she started freelancing from home—at roughly half her former income.

But she began spending more. "I've always been very disciplined about spending, but when it comes to Helen, that goes out the window," says Martha. There are toys to be had, gymnastic and swimming classes, and private Montessori school. "Cash outlays I would never make for myself, I don't think twice about for Helen," she says.

Mike is trying to be patient. "We steer clear of Martha's employment status these days, since it can be a hot button. Before we had Helen, our agreement was that Martha would take maternity leave and go back to work fulltime for the income, health benefits, 401(k), and so forth," he says. "However, it became clear she wanted to work out of the house; I agreed as long as she was able to replace her income. She has not been able to do this, which has led to some resentment on my part, since I feel I've been taken advantage of to some degree."

At least Mike and Martha openly discuss their circumstances. As one woman pleaded on a stay-at-home moms' Web site: "I'm 32 years old and expecting my first child in September. I know in my heart that I want to be at home with my baby for at least the first year. My husband refuses to let me stay home, and I really resent the fact that he can just stuff our child into day care after six weeks. I've heard there are articles out there that show the costs of day care, lunches, clothes and such. The new mom actually doesn't make a lot of money [by returning to work]. Can anyone point me in the right direction? Maybe if I show these to my husband, it will start a discussion."

A discussion that, in truth, should have been started many moons ago. But couples rarely talk about money unless they are already in a fight or are upset about a pending financial problem—hardly the best time for clear discussion of their future.

Full Partnership

Marriage is as much a promise of fiscal partnership as of sexual monogamy. Despite the natural inclination to let money issues remain dormant, dealt with largely through avoidance and denial, the more proactive couples can be about creating a strategic plan and a shared vision of their financial lives, the better.

When Roger Gibson sits down with his wife, they dream out loud. A leading financial planner, Gibson is author of First Comes Love, Then Comes Money: Easy Steps to Avoid the No. 1 Conflict in Marriage. "My wife shares her dreams, I share mine: where we want to go, what we want to do, what we want for our children. Out of those dreams comes a budget, which becomes a compass. Finance can be a very intimate part of your marriage."

Valerie Gregg learned that the hard way. An at-home mother of three in Atlanta, she used to make purchases and hide them from her husband, an epidemiologist. But not anymore. "It means you're being dominated by somebody else," she says. "It's the behavior of a child, to lie to avoid being in trouble." She has come to see that "my husband and I are in this boat together." If he's short on the bills one month, she'll write him a check, courtesy of earnings from freelance writing. "Ultimately, we're married and sharing everything in our lives. That's what marriage is, right?"