A version of this article appeared previously on US News and World Report Money.
The core of any marriage is trust. You are trusting virtually every aspect of your life to your partner and you reasonably expect the same in return.
One of the biggest elements of that trust is with money. You work hard, as does your partner, and you expect to share the resources in some way that benefits you both. Ideally, you’ve worked together on the basics of budgeting (whether you have a formal budget or not) and you have some shared financial goals that you’re working together to achieve.
When you discover that your partner has been making financial moves that undermine that hard work and those goals, it can be an incredibly bitter pill to swallow.
We’ve all heard the stories and many of us have experienced it. Someone is spending far more money than his or her partner imagined, racking up bills and quietly paying them out of the shared checking account. Eventually, the partner starts wondering where the money is going, or they find some receipts or a credit card bill in the mail, and is naturally upset. A fight ensues – a painful one.
This happens in a lot of marriages for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes, it happens as a result of one partner not understanding the expectations of another. Sometimes, addiction is at the core. At other times, the spending is just a symptom of a relationship experiencing much deeper problems.
If you find that your partner is spending far more than you expect and is hiding this spending from you, you have both a financial issue and a trust issue staring you in the face.
The first step in handling this is deciding what you want from the situation. You need to do this before confrontation, so you can give yourself time to cool down and get your thoughts in order. What is the outcome you want to see from this? Do you want a change in that spending behavior? Are there other issues going on that you need to or expect to see resolution on?
At the same time, ask yourself why your partner is doing this. Is an addiction at the core of it? Does your partner simply not connect his or her spending to the goals you have together? Does your partner perhaps not agree with those goals that you share?
Figuring out the cause of this problem requires you to spend some time really paying attention to what your partner is doing. What does your partner seem to care about most? What things are stressing your partner right now?
You may find that you actually understand much of the problem before the confrontation. It may simply be a matter of stress, a personal addiction or flaw, or it may be a difference of opinion on your life goals. These types of things can be addressed with a calm conversation, one in which you both agree not to get angry and if emotions boil over, you simply end the conversation and give the situation more thought until cooler heads prevail.
If you don’t have that level of understanding in your marriage, then there are deeper problems than mere financial ones at work.
In that situation, you shouldn’t immediately respond by contacting a divorce lawyer. Quick and extreme responses like that are borne purely out of emotion and are usually a mistake in which the only winners are the divorce lawyers.
Instead, give yourself several days to calm down, then suggest to your partner that you undergo some form of marriage counseling.
This may seem very intimidating to some, but the simple fact is that relationships are hard and sometimes it’s useful to get someone who is trained in helping relationships out of sticky situations to step in and help you to take a fresh look at your situation.
No matter what, the most important part is to not react to financial infidelity with pure emotion. A partner who is spending too much money is not a reason by itself for a marriage to fall apart, though it can be upsetting. Spend some time getting yourself calm, evaluating what you want out of the situation, and making sure your marital communication is strong, then move forward from there with a calm head.
It’s very likely that you’ll come out on the other side with a stronger marriage and a deeper understanding of each other.