Silent partners: Keeping financial secrets from your spouse can be destructive

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Financial secrets can wreck a relationship.

Like infidelity, when couples and spouses hold financial secrets between them it can erode trust and often spell doom for two people who love each other.

"The secrecy will eventually manifest itself. All types of habit changes will result because of financial secrecy," said Bruce Bickel, a senior vice president at PNC Wealth Management, Downtown.

Some people will hide bank accounts and other assets from their partners, while some obtain credit cards, loans from their 401(k)s, and even home equity loans without informing or being honest with their significant other. Some partners are guilty of lying to each other to cover up their embarrassing addictions to gambling, drugs, sex or compulsive shopping and spending.

It's no wonder conflicts over money top the list of issues contributing to divorce.

"Money has a huge emotional connection to our lives," said Daisy Miller, chief clinical officer at Hollywood Pavilion in Hollywood, Fla. "It connects to our success, hopes and expectations and our dreams, whatever they might be.

"Married couples and partners depend on each other to a certain degree for emotional and physical needs, and money touches on both. Financial infidelity takes on all those connotations [that cheating would]. The person who finds out about it feels victimized."

As a certified divorce financial analyst, Barbara Shapiro knows first hand how common financial secrets can be in failed relationships. Still, she cautions, not all financial secrets are terrible.

For instance, her husband recently threw a surprise party for her, which required him to obtain a new credit card without her knowledge to pay for the event.

"He knew I would see a drop in the bank account," said Mrs. Shapiro, vice president of HMS Financial Group in Dedham, Mass.

Too often though, financial deceit in a marriage or committed relationship can place a family in peril, especially if one partner handles the finances while the other has either blind trust or a total lack of interest in household money matters.

Mrs. Shapiro recently had a female client who said she called the bank to see how much she and her husband owed on their house only to discover he had taken out a second mortgage. He got her to sign the documents without explaining what they were. His business was failing and he was using the home equity line of credit to support the family.

"Regardless of who pays the bills or runs the household or physically writes the checks and does the investments, the other partner should not abdicate responsibility," Mrs. Shapiro said. "Otherwise, the imbalance of running that household becomes like parent and child."

According to a study released by The Hartford and MIT AgeLab, which included telephone interviews with 837 couples aged 45 to 74 either married or living with a partner, financial communication appears to be a typical problem.

Roughly a third of couples (36 percent) reported that one spouse is the dominant financial manager. Of this group, the "Drivers" (17 percent) handle all financial matters of the household while the "Passengers" (19 percent) are either minimally involved or completely hands off the family finances.

Just over half (53 percent) of the respondents said they were part of a couple where both partners are equally involved in all aspects of financial management of the household, making every financial decision and taking every action together.

A relatively small percentage (11 percent) practiced a division of labor approach. The "Divide and Conquer" couples each had a partner take the lead on some aspects of the household finances, but play a secondary role on other aspects.

Researchers who conducted the study concluded that couples using the "Divide and Conquer" management style were most likely to have considered important questions related to the death of a spouse: how would this impact the monthly income of the remaining spouse; how an expensive illness of the dying spouse would affect the remaining spouse's assets; and how prepared is the surviving spouse to manage the household when one partner dies.

"If you are living together, you are sharing a financial life," said Michael B. Rubin, author of "Beyond Paycheck to Paycheck" and founder of Total Candor, a financial education company in Portmouth, N.H..

"As you plan for the future, each person needs to discuss with the other whether or not their goals are the same," Mr. Rubin said. "Each person's goals for what they want to accomplish in the future might be different, and you don't want to discover that too late."

Experts suggest that it's healthy for married couples to have separate checking and savings accounts, but they should also have a joint checking and savings account for the household.

Single people living alone don't have to discuss their spending with anyone. Their finances -- good or bad -- are their own little secret. When they either marry or move in with a romantic partner, they may hold onto old attitudes and habits.

"They feel 'because I have worked for this money I have a right to use it as I want at the expense of my relationship,'" said Mr. Bickel. "That is what I call a spirit of independence rather than a relationship of dependency on each other.

"I try to counsel couples to use finances as a means of developing a relationship of trust and loyalty. The No. 1 problem in marriage and relationships is finances -- more than in-laws, careers or location."

Susan Shapiro Barash said she interviewed 500 women while writing the book "Little White Lies, Deep Dark Secrets: The Truth About Why Women Lie," and money topped the list of things they lie about.

They lie about the money they make, often hiding bonuses from their partners and spouses. They lie about the money they spend, always lowballing what something cost, and they lie to people outside their relationships about their lifestyle by trying to appear wealthier than they are.

"If women need to cut corners and deceive to get what they want financially, they will," Ms. Barash said. "The only lies I found in my study that provoked shame and guilt had to do with incest, abuse and family matters. Whereas lies about money, sex and love they felt more entitled to have as a coping mechanism to get through life."

She said the women she talked to felt entitled to buy designer purses, botox and private tutors for her children even if their spouses and partners thought it was a waste. They would simply lie to protect the choice.

"It's curious that in a society where so many options have opened for women, they still have a need to lie," Ms. Barash said. "And money is still one of the compelling reasons, even though millions of women make their own money."

Herb Vest, CEO of True.com, a leading scientifically based online relationship service, said couples cannot underestimate the importance of discussing their finances.

A big saver may come to resent a big-spending partner. The free-spirit also will tire of a penny-pinching spouse who doesn't allow them to have any fun with the money they've earned.

"I do not believe any romantic relationship can [survive] if there are major secrets between couples," Mr. Vest said. "It will eventually cause problems.

"If you are going to have secrets, join the CIA. Don't get married," he said. "Any type of secret can lead to other forms of deception."


Tim Grant can be reached at tgrant@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1591.


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