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Debt Management

Don’t let money anxiety cause trouble in your relationship

Many Americans hide accounts from their partner. Does it undermine trust in a relationship?

Summary

If left unchecked, fears about money can play a key role in decision-making and cause problems in your relationship. But there are some ways you can manage anxiety without keeping secrets from your partner.  

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A recent CreditCards.com poll found 19 percent of U.S. adults in live-in relationships are hiding a checking, savings or credit account from their partner. While the survey did not track the motivation behind this “financial infidelity,” experts agree that this behavior is often merely a symptom of a larger issue in the relationship.

“If you’re planning to build a life together, it needs to be rooted in trust, transparency and respect,” said Farnoosh Torabi, host of the podcast So Money and financial ambassador for Chase. “If a member of the relationship is guarded or secretive about their spending, debt or income, it’s never a good sign.”

See related: Credit card debt is a huge red flag for potential mates, survey shows

How emotions drive money decisions

Judith Barr, a licensed professional counselor, member of the Financial Therapy Association and author of the home study course A Recession Regression: Finding the Root of Our Relationships with Money, explained that the conversation around money rarely goes as deep as it needs to. Most people’s feelings surrounding money and their corresponding actions often aren’t actually about money, but about what money represents to them.

“There are people who say they have no anxiety about money at all, but I don’t believe it,” said Barr. “We are transferring our experience from…childhood when we deal with money.”

Barr explained that many of her clients make the connection between their feelings about money and an unresolved issue from childhood, be it feelings of abandonment from a parent, the lack of control they experienced as a child or something else. Without realizing it, it’s easy to place those feelings onto money, since it’s often seen as a key measurement of someone’s safety and success.

“People make a lot of different decisions about money,” said Barr. “And a lot of people have decided ‘I’ll never have enough.’”

Having healthy views about money isn’t determined by who has the most or who knows the most. Anxiety about money – and the issues that cause it – span socio-economic status and one’s opportunities.

When secrecy seems like the best option

Given the intense emotions surrounding money, plus the uncertainty of potentially relying on another person, hiding an account or debt from a partner seems like a natural response. These actions likely indicate that someone in the relationship hasn’t resolved their own personal issues with money, which could lead to overspending, increased debt or secret accounts. But in some situations, there could be more serious problems.

A 2015 report published by Michigan State University examined the correlation between domestic abuse and economic abuse – a tactic “that is often used to obtain power and control in an abusive relationship” and “has damaging economic consequences” for the victim.

This report cited several studies, all suggesting that anywhere between 88 and 100 percent of participating women in domestic abuse situations also experienced economic financial abuse.

While this study doesn’t account for situations of male domestic abuse victims or provide a large enough sample size to definitively conclude that domestic abuse victims automatically suffer financial abuse, it does highlight an alarming trend: controlling the finances is a convenient way to gain power over an intimate partner.

When the risks of merging finances with a partner include everything from increased debt to financial hardship and economic abuse, hiding accounts from a partner is a tempting – and sometimes necessary – way to resolve the situation.

See related: How to rebuild your finances after escaping a financially abusive relationship

What you can do besides keeping secrets

Certain circumstances might leave someone with no choice but to hide an account. But there are less drastic steps you can take to maintain your own financial health that don’t require keeping secrets.

1. Learn to utilize your emotions for healing

“Change won’t be sustained without the inner work being done,” Barr said.

Before you can have a productive conversation about finance with someone else, it’s important to get to the root of your own relationship with money.

If you have an unhealthy relationship with money, you have the option to let the issue go unchallenged and watch it escalate into bigger problems or you can work to heal or resolve the issue at the root before it gets to a breaking point.

“The most important thing we can do is discover our own relationship with money and do our own healing work with money,” Barr noted. “And if we have a partner, find out if they’re willing to do theirs.”

Even if you’ve done the work and exhibit healthy behaviors, things get more complicated in relationships.

Beyond the inevitable uncertainty that comes with including another person in the financial decision-making, relationships can bring up previously undetected emotions that lead to conflict. In the best of relationships, for instance, income disparity between two partners can cause some conflict.

“It’s easy for the person who doesn’t make money or earns less to feel less than [the other partner],” Torabi explained.

According to Barr, this behavior is likely a symptom of deeper emotions.

While it might not fully address these, learning to compromise with your partner can help ease the tension when issues arise. In this specific case, Torabi offered a simple solution to help the person making less money feel more in control: “Level the playing field by appropriating an equal percentage of the household income…to each individual bank account for guilt-free spending.”

2. Make a plan with your partner

In the past, the general expectation was for couples to combine financial resources when they got married. But with an increase in the number of women who work outside of the home and non-married couples pooling resources, that advice might not be the best fit for everyone.

“I think it’s important to have yours, mine and our financial accounts.” Torabi explained. “Maintaining a system where you pool some of your money and expenses together as a couple, but still maintain individual savings accounts and credit cards, I have found to help reduce tension and arguments around money.”

Even for one-income households, leaving the finances to the primary breadwinner might not be the best option. It can alienate their partner and keep them from getting on board with the financial goals they set.

“It’s important that [the person not working or making less] doesn’t feel excluded or inadvertently get excluded from decisions and moves surrounding the couple’s finances,” Torabi said. “Designating the person who earns less to keep tabs on the finances may be another way for the person to feel more involved and an equal player.”

3. Focus on your credit score

As time goes on and your financial lives get more intertwined, it’s easy to forget about your own personal finances and credit score.

“It’s a common myth that your credit will automatically combine with your new husband or wife once you get married,” said Ted Rossman, industry analyst for CreditCards.com. “Marriage can factor into credit if you and your spouse hold joint accounts…but in the same way that two unmarried people with a joint financial obligation would experience.”

If you and your partner decide to hold all your resources in joint accounts, you might be tempted to do the same thing with lines of credit. But unlike bank accounts, joint credit cards are rare. Instead, one person is normally the account holder and the other is an authorized user.

While this card will impact both credit scores, only the main account holder has control of the account: only they can stipulate how the authorized user can use the card, request a credit increase and close the account – all without permission from the authorized user.

See related: Which cards let you be a co-signer, joint account holder

This can cause some problems, especially if the authorized user has no open lines of credit in their own name. If they’re taken off the account or the account is closed, it will be wiped from their credit report – and their credit score could take a hit.

“A married person who wants to keep [their] credit profile separate from her spouse can do this by keeping accounts in [their] name only. That’s difficult on a big loan like a mortgage, since you’ll probably need both partners’ incomes to qualify,” said Rossman. “But it’s much easier to keep things like credit cards and car loans in one person’s name.”

Should a relationship go south and end in a break up or divorce, having a credit account in your name is a must. Especially if your money is tied up in joint accounts, having an open line of credit in your name will give you some additional options to help you start over.

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Published: May 17, 2019

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