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Financial Infidelity: what to do about secret debt in your relationship

Would you be surprised if I told you that money is one of the top causes of arguments in relationships along with sex, housework and children?


I didn’t think so.

But did you know that other than adultery and drifting apart, financial problems are another common cause of divorce?

And it’s easy to see why: cash is an emotionally loaded topic because our relationship with money is deep and complex and generates feelings of love, freedom, security or power.

What’s more, for many couples, money problems are the biggest strain on their relationships.

But as stressful as everyday financial problems are among couples, can you imagine the blow caused by discovering that your partner was hiding a large amount of debt?

Financial infidelity

Keeping money secrets from your partner is known as financial infidelity, but how it is defined is different to every couple.

For some, it may be hiding compulsive shopping or gambling debts, while for others, it could be having a secret stash of cash or lack of savings.

However, when the deception is discovered, it evokes feelings of betrayal and a loss of trust that can wreak havoc on a relationship.

To make matters worse, the deceit can create practical problems such as costly repayments or damage to both persons’ credit rating, and the financial repercussions can last for years.

More than a quarter of UK adults have been with a partner who they later found out was in serious debt according to the Money Advice Service.

What’s more, almost a third (29%) of people admitted that they were keeping their debt a secret with the average debt being hidden exceeding £4,100.

Credit card debts, personal loans and bank overdrafts are the most common types of debts that are hidden from partners.

Almost a third of people admitted that they were keeping debt a secret

Why are we hiding debts?

There are many reasons why people might choose to hide debts from the people closest to them, including guilt, shame or not wanting to burden their partner with extra stress.

On some occasions, people also hide debts from their partners for fear of domestic violence.

But avoiding or hiding your debts is never a viable solution as repayments and the effects of compound interest can cause the debt to grow quickly and partners may be liable for debts incurred by their other half, even if the debt was hidden from them.

What’s more, if you share a bank account, you will be financially linked – even if you are not married – and lenders will look at both of your credit reports when assessing your eligibility for anything from a mortgage to a mobile phone.

Where can you get help for problem debt?

If you’ve discovered that your loved one has been hiding a secret debt, try not to panic as there is help available through organisations and charities that provide practical advice on how to restructure or pay off your debts, experts on bankruptcy and also services that can help with mental health issues.

Worth a look is StepChange and the Debt Advice Foundation which are charities that give free, confidential, impartial advice.

The Money Advice Service, an independent service set up by the government, also offers free and impartial advice through a free phone line or via online chat.

If you feel at risk of domestic abuse there is help and support available and the household isolation instructions as a result of coronavirus do not apply if you need to leave your home for safety reasons.

Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline (0808 2000 247) offers free confidential support 24-hours a day to victims and those who are worried about friends/loved ones.

If you are worried about your partner, here is what to watch out for:

1. They avoid talking about money

If you find that your partner changes the subject every time you bring up finances they might have a money problem they’re avoiding because they feel ashamed or overwhelmed.

2. A history of debt

Falling into debt is a slippery slope – it happens quickly and crawling back from it is a challenge.

One common debt that people struggle with is an overdraft - often considered a “gateway debt” as it feels different than a credit card or loan. Once you’re in too far, it can be really tough to get back out, and your problem could snowball.

3. A sudden loss of income

Dealing with a sudden loss of income is stressful in any situation, but even more so during a global pandemic and many people turn to credit to get by.  Talking about it openly early on can help avoid problems later.

4. Living beyond their means

Does your loved one always seem to be an early adopter of the latest trends or gadgets, yet they don’t appear to have the income to fund this lifestyle? If so, it could be paid for with credit and get out of control.

5. A change in mood

It’s true what they say about money problems keeping you up at night and problem debt can have a big impact on someone’s mental health.

If your partner has trouble sleeping, appears more lethargic or generally listless, it could be a sign they are struggling with their mental health due to financial troubles.

6. Suffering from addiction

Addictions to alcohol or gambling are often a reason for debt as people apply for further credit to fund their habit.

What’s more, secretive behaviours are common in people who are battling addictions and as the problem worsens, they become increasingly withdrawn.

7. Reluctance to open post in front of you

If your partner wants to open their mail in private or leaves a pile of bills unopened on the side, they made be trying to avoid the issue or hide it from you intentionally.

8. Multiple credit cards

While paying on plastic isn’t a sign that someone has a problem with debt on its own, having multiple credit cards is often a sign that their finances aren’t great.

9. Lack of savings or investments

If your partner doesn’t have any savings, despite having a steady job, it suggests that not only are they unable to budget effectively, they are at a greater risk of going into debt as they do not have access to an emergency fund should something happen unexpectantly.

Don’t forget that while you may think that this article is brilliant, it is intended for information purposes only and should not be mistaken for financial advice or recommendations.

3 things to do
right now

1

Before you sit down to have a conversation about debt, practice what you are going to say. This will help you feel in control and prepare you for any questions that you will need to answer.

2

Be specific about what you want to accomplish, the timeline and the action that is needed to get the ball rolling.

3

Write down your plan so that you can see exactly what steps you need to take control of the situation. Send yourself a copy via email so that you don’t lose it.

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