My latest MSN column “Is your spouse hiding debt?” highlights the red flags that may indicate your beloved is committing financial infidelity.
But what happens if you discover that’s the case? Can couples recover after one has lied to the other about debt?
The short version is yes, but it can be a rocky road. Here’s a message I got from one of my Facebook fans, who didn’t want to be identified:
My husband has always handled money poorly. When we began dating, he had several delinquent accounts and a repo. As we got engaged I took over managing our money and cleaned it all up. We got to a good place, but apparently the underlying issues were not addressed.
I routinely monitor our credit reports and I noticed an account I didn’t recognize on his. I asked him about it and he told me it was a business credit card from his job. It stayed on his reports after he left the job and he told me there must have been some mix-up where it didn’t get closed when he left. I asked after it periodically and he always said he’d get it taken care of. I assumed he was just procrastinating, as he was busy with his new job.
A little over a year later, I got a call at 8 a.m. from a collection agency about the account. He was away on business at the time and I was irritated with him for not dealing with it, so I decided to call and wake him and tell him about the collection call. At that point he confessed he’d kept the card as personal after he left his job and has been using it for “play money”–lunches out, gadgets, etc. He thought he could handle it himself and find some way to cover the bill on his own.
I was devastated. The money wasn’t a big deal, but it was such a betrayal–all the lies, feeling like a fool, and feeling like we weren’t on the same team at all about our goals and financial plan like I thought we were.
It was a hellish couple of weeks. I had to decide how I wanted to respond and he was terrified and ashamed. We had a lot of emotional conversations in the aftermath, and the only positive I can see out of it is that we knew each other a lot better after that. I ultimately decided to stay, but I was also very clear that it was a one-time thing. If it happens again we will be divorcing.
One of the outcomes of our discussion is that we started allocating much more money for personal use, something he felt he’d been lacking. I was ambivalent about it–it almost felt like rewarding him for what he had done–but in the spirit of trying to have an equal marriage where we both had a voice, I agreed. That was nearly two years ago and while we’ve mostly recovered, I’ve also realized I don’t think we’re ever going to be completely recovered. I’ve gotten to the point where I trust him about 90%, but I’m kind of stalled there. He’s a wonderful man in many other respects and I don’t regret staying, but I do grieve for having lost the ability to trust my husband unconditionally. I would caution anyone contemplating hiding money or an account from their spouse that it’s just not worth it. Just like physical infidelity. What indulgence they’ll be getting just isn’t worth the ultimate cost.
I think this account is instructive for a number of reasons. It shows how devastating a hidden debt can be on a deceived partner.
But it also highlights how both spouses can play a role in creating this situation. People, even married people, need some independence and freedom to spend money with no questions asked. Even when you’re working together toward important goals, such as saving for retirement and paying down debt, you need to carve out some cash for each person to spend without having to be accountable to the other.
I mention this because, as the money expert in our household, I have a tendency to think we should do things MY way. And that’s no way to run a marriage. My husband has his own needs, perspective and goals that are equally important. I’ve learned that compromise is essential to a happy marriage. Maybe we don’t save quite as much of our income as I’d like (although we do save a ton) and perhaps we don’t spend quite as much as he’d like, but we’re on track to meet our goals and (this is important) still enjoying our lives today.