The Most Common Type of Betrayal in Relationships

New research focuses on an unexplored but common area of relationship secrets.

Posted Nov 12, 2019

It’s fair to say that all couples in long-term relationships have some secrets they keep from each other. You may prefer your partner not to know that you keep a running set of texts with a co-worker or neighbor whose content, though platonic, occasionally ventures into highly personal areas. You'd rather your partner didn't know about these missives.

Technically, this is not an “infidelity” because nothing sexual is going on, but you’re afraid your partner may interpret the communication as representing a form of cheating. Other forms of infidelity may seem more subtle, such as your tendency to over-spend when online offers beckon you with tempting discounts. You’ve found a way to keep the evidence hidden from your partner, but if your relationship were totally honest, you’d have no reason to hide your little indulgences.

Financial infidelity can take extreme forms, as described in a recent article in the New York Times advice column called “Social Q’s,” where advice expert Philp Galanes offers recommendations for handling awkward situations. In this case, a wife who calls herself “Mrs. Ed” works in her husband’s business, a position for which she is qualified to earn a paycheck. However, her husband won’t give her that paycheck. Instead, “He simply puts random amounts of money into our checking accounts at random times. He says, 'You are paid $x a year.'"

As a result, Mrs. Ed never knows how much money she can afford to spend even on normal household commodities. Galanes advises Mrs. Ed to have a frank talk with her husband about money, noting that “There are a million things that could make working for a spouse difficult, but compensation should not be one of them.”

This example may have been unusual, but failure to disclose financial information in couples may not be. A recent exploratory study by the University of Southern Mississippi’s Michelle Jeanfreau and colleagues (2019) provides some insights into how this area of cheating fits into the larger pattern of deceitful behaviors on the part of married couples. As the authors note, “Although it is difficult to determine the frequency of financial arguments among couples, several studies have determined that financial issues can lead to divorce” (p. 1). Indeed, previous research cited by the authors attributed a high degree of seriousness to financial conflict, perhaps even more so than disagreements about sex or in-laws.

Defining financial infidelity as a “damaging combination of deceit, secrecy, and mistrust,” Jeanfreau et al. believe that as many as one-third of all marriages involve such behaviors as hiding purchases and lying about the cost of a purchased item. Even the relatively innocent lies or errors of omission can “lead to trust issues in the relationship and eventual relationship dissolution” (p. 2). If you’re one of the one-third of partners in a relationship (or your partner is), it’s important to come to grips with this problem if you want your relationship to continue.

Financial management is more than a way to handle money, according to Jeanfreau et al. As you might be able to confirm based on your own relationship, it incorporates themes of commitment (being able to stay faithful), trust (believing you can rely on your partner), power (who controls the purse strings), and control (whether you feel you have a say in how money is spent).

Drawing from a sample of 414 married individuals who were part of a larger quantitative study, the University of Southern Mississippi research team analyzed the interview responses of 182 individuals. The research team chose married people because the legal ties involved in marriage have a different connotation for financial management than might be true for dating or cohabitating partners. The responses the authors chose to analyze were drawn from short-answer questions that accompanied an online quantitative survey. The average length of marriage among the subsample was 14 years, with most married from 2 to 32 years; 71% of the respondents were female.  

The financial infidelity questionnaire used in this research covered a wide span of behaviors ranging from hiding or disguising purchases, opening a credit card without telling the spouse, lying to cover up a debt, gambling, spending money on pornographic materials or “gentlemen’s clubs,” spending money on the children without telling the spouse and even the extreme form of cheating involving filing for bankruptcy. The respondents also reported on how decision-making occurred in the household around finances, including one question regarding whether the spouse ever lied about money. There were also questions assessing conflicts in general and more traditional forms of relationship infidelity such as spending time with anyone and not telling the partner.

Now ask yourself how you would rate on financial infidelity in your own relationship. Have you ever lied about money to avoid an argument? If so, then you’re in agreement with 41% of the sample. If you’ve ever spent money on yourself just because you wanted to, then you’re like 29% of the individuals completing the financial infidelity measure. Only 11% were never deceitful about money. Furthermore, it would be unusual, based on the Jeanfreau et al. study, never to have argued with your partner about money, given that nearly three-quarters of their sample admitted they had. In fact, the biggest contributors to these disagreements were personal spending (28%) and credit card debts (14%).

Secrets and arguments about money weren’t the only areas of potential conflict, as over one-third of the sample admitted to going somewhere without telling their spouse. Most of these unexcused absences, as it were, didn’t seem all that devious, and included running errands or having coffee or a meal with someone else. However, 30% of the “gone somewhere” individuals went to bars without telling the spouse and 15% were involved in some type of sexual encounter. Nearly one-third of those who spent time with someone else (amounting to less than 10% of the sample) did report that they saw an ex or were having an affair. Despite all of this secret-keeping, the majority of respondents (77%) reported that they shared financial decisions with their spouses, and just under one-half had joint bank accounts and paid bills together with the spouse.

You might be thinking that the occasional financial white lie or even secretive meeting with someone else isn’t all that much to worry about when it comes to your relationship’s health. Indeed, the authors note that “it is quite normal for married couples not to give one another a “play by play” of their day (p. 6).” However, there’s a difference between this kind of detailed accounting and the keeping of secrets, financial or otherwise, because of the erosion of trust that can result in this high-stakes area. In fact, the authors cite the financial institution Northwestern Mutual in summarizing advice to couples struggling to rebuild their relationship in the wake of a fidelity involving money.

All of these tips seem quite consistent with the advice Galanes provided to Mrs. Ed. You need to talk to your partner frankly and openly, set joint expectations and goals, use positive and non-blaming statements, and share your financial information with each other and mutually agree upon spending limits. You might even consider having a “monthly meeting” to discuss the state of your finances. Such methods also agree with psychological research on how to reduce stress when talking to your partner about money.

To sum up, fulfillment in relationships depends on the cornerstones of commitment and trust, as well as the sharing of power and control. Keep those cornerstones intact by making financial honesty your own couple's best policy.

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Jeanfreau, M. M., Holden, C., & Brazeal, M. (2019). Our money, my secrets: Why married individuals commit financial infidelity. Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal. doi:/10.1007/s10591-019-09516-7