Why Do People Lie About Money in Marriages? A Couples Therapist Weighs In
“Financial infidelity is a lot like sexual infidelity, in the sense that both include lies, deceit, and secrets.”
“All Indian women have a stash of cash hidden from their husbands, and they should,” a wildly irritated Reema announced as she sat with her arms folded in her couples therapy session. Her husband had found out about investments she had made, and, although proud of her financial sensibility, he could not fathom why she chose to hide them from him. This secret, even though Reema kept it for the security of their family, was still a secret. This had seeded the initial insecurity in her husband, which had now snowballed into complete mistrust.
The financial structure of the urban Indian household has changed significantly over the years. The biggest transformation has been women’s growing financial independence, increasingly making both partners in a heterosexual marriage equally accountable for the financial health of the family. However, despite this equal partnership, financial infidelity — when a person withholds some or all information regarding their income, bank accounts, investments, credit cards, debt, and bills from their partner — continues to be a recurring trend.
Financial infidelity is a lot like sexual infidelity, in that, one partner engages in a ‘transaction’ without their spouse’s awareness — it includes similar components, as well: lies, secrets, and deceit. According to recent research, financial infidelity can also be just as devastating for marriage as sexual infidelity, as conflict over money is one of the primary reasons for divorce.
While there is no single reason for financial infidelity in relationships, it is usually rationalized by one of the following justifications: “I was saving for a rainy day”; “we need to live within tighter means”; or even the well-intentioned “I did it because I thought it was the best decision for us.” According to a 2015 survey, a considerable 39% of Indians felt it was okay to lie about money in a marriage, The Times of India reported.
In 2019, a few couples that were experiencing a breakdown in their relationship because of a lack of financial transparency between them visited my therapy room. Reema, who works in Human Resources, chose to keep her investments hidden from her husband, an investment banker, because she felt she “didn’t need to” tell him, whereas Nasheed, another male client believed if he laid all his finances out in the open, his wife’s “demands for expensive things” would grow unabated.
In my interactions with these clients, I noticed that financial infidelity in relationships is often a result of one of two things: the desire to have complete financial independence or the feeling of shame.
Reema’s husband, over the course of therapy, sat back and recalled the signs: “her complete refusal to share her bank statements,” “letters and calls from funds he wasn’t aware of,” and “expensive purchases that did not quite fit with her income.” Reema, on her part, had felt no need to be transparent with her husband because she felt responsible for her income and investments. Her complete control over her finances instilled a belief that she did not need to keep her husband in the loop. But there’s a difference between financial independence and financial infidelity. Independence is earning, investing and saving without any contribution from your partner — while they are aware of things. Infidelity is keeping your partner in the dark about your income, investments, accounts, and/or savings.
Even though Reema’s partner kept her in the know of his finances, she chose otherwise. The justification to lie came from how she saw her mother and mother-in-law run their homes; they always had cash and made investments without their husbands knowing. Reema simply viewed it as ‘what a good wife does.’ What she did not realize that both her mother and mother-in-law were financially dependent on their spouses and had no say in their investments, unlike her, who was an equal-earning partner in her marriage. When they used to hide financial details from their husbands, it was to give them some semblance of financial autonomy, a privilege she already enjoyed.
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Unfortunately, not all cases of financial infidelity are about mitigating one partner’s financial insecurities — some lie to protect themselves from embarrassment.
Nasheed, who was handed the baton of financial decision-making for the family business after his father’s death, usually kept his wife, a homemaker, out of money matters. When his wife would ask about the family’s financial health, his reply would vary between “everything is fine,” “you don’t need to know,” and “don’t you trust me?”
Unfortunately, Nasheed’s investments didn’t pay off. He had dissolved his assets, liquidated his funds, and had an overdraft on his bank account. Even when things were going sour, he kept information about the family’s financial health from his wife. It was the shame and embarrassment of making poor investments and not earning enough that stopped him from coming clean. Nasheed also did not want to confront his wife out of a fear of conflict. He feared her reaction, the additional embarrassment, and conflict that would follow if she told their families. He also feared that if their families found out about his failure, it would ruin the image he had carefully carved for himself over the years — he took pride in being considered the calm, sensible and responsible one But his wife eventually found out, when one day, Nasheed’s friend called her asking to be paid back for a loan Nasheed had taken from him. She later recounted to me in therapy that as she sat in disbelief at the accumulated debt, she blamed herself for not checking in more regularly and for not pushing him harder to tell her the complete truth.
There is also a third, more sinister motivation for financial infidelity — when a partner starts accumulating a secret stash of money without their spouse’s awareness for a contingency ‘escape’ plan.
Jane had been married for 23 years when she entered therapy on her husband’s insistence — he wanted her to be more “assertive.” They were both lawyers; while Jane started practicing law much after her husband — she was a homemaker for the first 10 years of their marriage — she later opened her own business, and began taking on independent projects. Upon its success, Jane’s husband also quit his job and began consulting on projects that came to her business. While in therapy, she began to identify patterns of emotional abuse in her relationship — her husband’s complete control over her earnings, savings, investments, and spending, from the lingerie she bought to the money she spent on buying ration for the house. All her bank accounts were joint accounts with him, while he had his own separate accounts.
While in therapy with me, she also realized her lack of assertiveness was a coping mechanism to maintain the relationship and “peace” at home. As a reaction to this new insight, she opened her own bank account, without her husband’s awareness, and started directing payments for some projects into that account. This was her way of building a nest for herself because she was looking for a way out of the marriage. Eventually, Jane’s husband found out and that led to a passionate discourse on why she felt the need to do it. They’re now in couple’s therapy with me, trying to understand how their relationship grew, learning to respect each other’s personalities and needs and more importantly, figuring out if they want to continue to be together.
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The deceit that comes with financial infidelity threatens the very foundation of a relationship by breaking the trust between a couple. The partner left in the dark may begin to doubt their sense of place in their relationship and their self-worth and may begin to feel insecure. As the lie goes on, blame and guilt start getting tossed around within the relationships, creating further barriers to honest communication.
I worked with these three couples — Reema and her husband, Nasheed and his wife and Jane and her husband — on rebuilding trust between them, with small steps like setting realistic budgets that are conducive to both partners and their lifestyles and scheduling a specific time to discuss expenses, income, accounts, savings, and investments. This required the couples to honor and respect their partners’ income, financial goals, sense of financial independence and financial insecurity and not misuse any of these. Lastly, the couples worked on splitting the burden of financial awareness and responsibility. This meant both partners in each relationship actively consumed knowledge about investments and chose to be involved in the decision-making processes behind these investments.
It’s not humanly possible to keep your partner updated about every single financial detail of your life. However, it is your responsibility to keep your partner involved in, or at least aware of, decisions that matter. If the intention is to hide — even if you think it is for their good – it is financial infidelity. Relationships are complex, to say the least, and as you grow in the relationship your sense of “I” evolves, despite your personal aspirations. But it is important to remember that you are an active participant in the relationship, and it is important that you exercise that agency in the right way by setting the intention to build a relationship of trust and open communication and prevent a breakdown in the relationship in any form.
Priyanka Varma is a clinical psychologist, counselor, and psychotherapist. She currently consults at The Thought Co., Holy Family Hospital, and Global Hospitals.