Are You Guilty of Financial Infidelity?

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The shrinks and marriage experts call this “financial infidelity,” and it’s the latest thing in the secrets-and-lies category of relationship stories.

Dr. Phil has warned against its harmful effects. Bloggers at Forbes, the New York Times, and CBS have weighed in. Last spring, SELF magazine published a poll revealing that although 70 percent of women believe financial honesty to be as important in marriage as sexual honesty, fully a third had lied to their husbands about money. The survey came on the heels of one done last year by a British financial-services company revealing that one in five women had secret bank accounts containing, on average, a thousand pounds — or more than $1,500 — each.

Shrinks say financial infidelity is as serious a marital infraction as sexual infidelity because of the hypothetical total transparency that occurs in the ideal marriage. “Telling lies or keeping secrets threatens your relationship’s stability,” a New York City psychotherapist named Amanda Clayman told SELF. But in the real world, in which marriage occurs later and later — in New York City, the median age of first marriage for women is 28, which is two years older than the national median and eight years older than the median in 1960 — a secret bank account, in lieu of a plain-old separate bank account, seems a reasonable response to the sudden loss of autonomy that comes with betrothal.

In single life, a person can grab a snack, or blow her savings on an antique bed frame, without having to consult with anyone else. In marriage, those decisions start to be made jointly, even when the other partner is not there, because your bottom line is no longer yours alone. Add kids and the calculus of every small purchase and big splurge gets even more complicated — a married woman with children, unless she is very comfortably rich, cannot in her right mind blow her savings on an antique bed frame, because she’s mentally enumerating all the necessities that bed frame could buy. Even how she spends her time is subjected to cost-benefit analysis. Any ten minutes spent enjoying coffee and solitude must be weighed against ten minutes playing tickle torture, or going over homework, or making lunch, or finding a playdate for next weekend. A secret stash of cash provides the illusion of freedom in a life of sacrifices. Wives may hoard money the way husbands browse porn — not because they’re contemplating an exit or because they’re fundamentally dishonest, but because they want to revisit, once in a while, their formerly unencumbered life.  

Also: Financial dependence breeds anxiety; despite the rush to work by generations of women, fully 30 percent of married mothers continue to stay home and care for children, giving up their own earnings potential in the bargain. Suze Ormond advises even these women to have a separate bank account and credit card. My friend would fall under this category. She had spent her singlehood working at a very good job, the kind with fun colleagues and direct deposit, but when motherhood intervened, neither she nor her husband could ignore the obvious: His job was better — more important, more visible, much more lucrative, with more future potential. After very little agonizing, she quit to care for their child. But having no income worked on her nerves. What if something happened to her?

Like what? I asked. What if her husband died? Or cheated on her? What if, in the event of tragedy, accident, apocalypse, she needed to flee? It took that box of dough in the backyard to give her the sense of security that her seemingly secure marriage, on its own, failed to provide.