- Merging personal finances with a partner can increase the odds the relationship lasts.
- Couples that merge their money enjoy higher levels of satisfaction with life and their relationship.
- Sharing financial information increases the likelihood that people will reach their goals.
The major concerns that create conflict for couples tend to center around some common areas. Among the most frequently cited touchy topics include money and sex and childrearing for couples that are also parents. The arguments about money and sex can be similar—who makes decisions about how much and how often. Conflicts about money often pop up as the most frequent reason for divorce or breakups.
When people hear the word “infidelity,” most people immediately think of romantic or sexual infidelity in a relationship. However, financial infidelity is a very real issue, and it is often at the root of the arguments that couples have about money. Garbinsky et al. (2023) described this form of betrayal as engaging in money dealings that are kept secret from a partner, wife, or husband due to the expectation that they would disapprove of the activity.
Financial infidelity, which one study found happens in around 27 percent of couples (Jeanfreau et al., 2018), can run the spectrum from spending money without telling your partner to saving money without telling your partner. Opening up an individual savings account, a new credit card, or earning extra income without telling your partner because you believe they would disapprove all constitute financial infidelity. It’s not just buying something you long for but know your partner just wouldn’t go for—although that qualifies, too.
Perhaps a classic example of the potential for financial infidelity fallout is found in O. Henry’s story, “The Gift of the Magi.” Each member of a young couple decides to surprise the other with a treasured gift designed to complement their partner’s most valued possession. It all goes awry when each partner secretly sells the possession that the other partner is buying an accessory to highlight. It’s a tragic love story of self-sacrifice for the other, but hiding “secret income” to make “secret purchases” doesn’t always turn out the way a person wants. Jeanfreau and colleagues (2020) found that the two main drivers of financial infidelity for people were the desire to avoid an argument and the desire to spend money on something for themselves.
Just like romantic and sexual infidelity, the financial version also involves lies or omissions, which is where the betrayal is. Dishonesty in one area can lead to doubt about a person’s honesty in another. Money also symbolizes power in many couples, and when a partner is duplicitous in how they manage money, power struggles can erupt in this area that reflect discord in other areas, either overtly or covertly.
Shared Resources and a Shared Vision
In couples where money secrets exist, there is lower marital satisfaction and overall life satisfaction (Jeanfreau et al., 2018). So are there steps a couple can take to protect against the risk of infidelity? The most important rule for healthy relationships is maintaining open, honest communication. Be willing to talk openly about your philosophy of earning, spending, and saving with your partner. Talk about how you view money and what lessons you learned about finances along the way. Be willing to listen to your partner’s philosophy, perspective, and knowledge base.
Should Couples Open a Joint Bank Account?
When you think about what money represents to you and your partner and what your relationship represents to both of you, “security” is likely to be one of the feelings or expectations that arise. Insecurity in a relationship and financial insecurity are both threats to our well-being. It turns out that opening a joint bank account and merging finances can be effective in keeping a relationship satisfying and stable (Duvander & Kridahl, 2022; Olson et al., 2023). Duvander and Kridahl (2022) looked at couples across the lifespan and found that couples who pooled their money had fewer economic conflicts, especially if they had fewer economic resources, were in longer-duration relationships, or were older.
Olson and colleagues (2023) created an experimental study in which they were able to compare three groups of newly married or committed couples—those who were instructed to merge their finances, those who were instructed to keep their money separate, and a control group who received no specific instructions for money management. Two years later, the couples who were asked to do a “money merger” were enjoying higher-quality relationships than the other two groups.
There were three important benefit takeaways noted by Olson et al. (2023) regarding couples who complete the “money merger”:
- Couples improve their feelings about how they handle money.
- Couples are able to identify and work together more easily for shared financial goals.
- Couples are more responsive to one another and meet one another’s needs without a transactional mindset—they care for their partners without expectations regarding “payback.”
Betrayal and money both play a role in relationship breakdowns and breakups. Even if you think a little “money mystery” is OK, imagine how you’d feel if you knew your partner had stockpiled cash in an account you didn’t even know about. Regardless of the innocence of the planned purpose of the funds, secrecy about the account could lead to doubt about the existence of other financial dealings.
By making the commitment to transparency and honesty regarding finances, you are adding a layer of protection to your relationship.
Jeanfreau, M. M., Holden, C., & Brazeal, M. (2020). Our money, my secrets: Why married individuals commit financial infidelity. Contemporary Family Therapy, 42, 46-54.
Jeanfreau, M., Noguchi, K., Mong, M. D., & Stadthagen, H. (2018). Financial infidelity in couple relationships. Journal of Financial Therapy, 9(1), 2.
Duvander, A.-Z., & Kridahl, L. (2022). Best done differently? Couples’ money pooling and the association with economic conflicts. Journal of Social & Personal Relationships, 39(5), 1344–1368. https://doi.org/10.1177/02654075211056561