Love, Lies, and Bank Accounts

Financial infidelity can ruin a marriage, but it doesn't have to.


In Financial Infidelity, Bonnie Eaker Weil, a New York-based relationship therapist, writes about why spouses lie to each other about money and how to stop. She argues that any kind of fib, even failing to tell a partner about a purchase, is a problem. U.S. News spoke with Weil about how to deal with money conflicts in relationships. Excerpts:

What is financial infidelity?

It's something that somebody does behind somebody else's back. It's not just about hiding. It's not about the secret. It's really about the deceit behind the lying and the secret. And it's actually, in my opinion, a subtle form of cheating, and you don't even realize that you're doing it. There's no such thing as an innocent financial fib. One of the worst parts of financial infidelity is not just keeping a secret but omitting [any mention of your spending]. In my book, you're lying if you're omitting it and spend money on something that you hide.

Are you saying you should really not have any secrets at all from your partner?

Yes, you should not have any secrets. The only thing I tell people is that if you have a fantasy about another man or woman, I don't think it's very helpful to tell [your partner]. But most of the time, if you hide something, you're going to be very distant and irritable with your partner, because you're doing something you feel guilty about. But what if you have a habit, like buying a daily latte, that really bothers your partner?

That is a question. I always tell people they should have their own money, especially women. Because I don't like to have somebody saying to me—I call it "mother, may I?"—you don't want to get into that position where you're the little girl or you're the little boy, and the other person is your parent. You want to have your own money and certain things are guilt-free, and you just do what you want with it. If you want to buy a latte, or lipstick, or a facial, or get a massage, you do not have to ask permission because it's your own money. You can say anything over $50, you discuss it, but you don't want to get in a position where you ask permission all the time.

Where do you draw the line between keeping a secret stash and having separate accounts?

It depends a lot on the relationship. You pick a person who is going to give you the most trouble, so you can get somewhere to the middle. If you say you're upset with him because he's saying, "Why did you buy the latte?" you probably picked him because you want someone to calm you down so you're not so much the spendthrift, and he picked you so he can live a little. You have to sit down and talk about it, and I give scripts you can use in my book. Could you give an example of a type of script you might use?

Let's say you are married. This is what you're not supposed to do: The person would say to you, "I can't believe that you're spending all this money on your mother with medical expenses. I wanted to buy a new house, and now we can't." That's what not to do. What's wrong with that?

That's blame and shame. And once you blame and shame, people move away, they shut down, they hold a grudge. So the way you would say it would be, "It makes sense and I can totally understand how worried you are about your mother and why you would like to pay for the medical bills." That's validating. The next sentence would be, "I'm wondering how we could afford a new house if you pay for your mother's medical bills." Then the person can say, "Maybe I can get a new job. Maybe I can ask my brother to help with the bills." So you need to be empathetic.

Exactly. We're trying to bring out the love between two people. So in this case, once the wife is understanding about the medical bills, the man is more willing to say, "Let's give it a shot." But if you're blaming and shaming, he's always going to stick up for his mother. When should you start talking about money?

I believe in the early rounds of dating, say by the second or third date, you should be using the money language of love and finding out where this person is money-wise. Often people are in the honeymoon stage, their heads are in the clouds, and then they get married, and then they have a big problem.