Love, Marriage, and Financial Infidelity

I grew up in a household where money was tight, and I occasionally woke up in the middle of the night to the sounds of my parents arguing about it. Sometimes the arguments reached a level of intensity that made me imagine that I’d end up like one of those kids in an ABC Afterschool Special, navigating the politics of divorced parents. Love, I learned early on, was not something simple; it was not a thing you either had or didn’t have for someone, but something deeply complicated. Love was not enough on its own, nor could it conquer all. It was something that could be corroded by numbers in a bank account.

I was reminded about this while reading the latest “Unhitched” column in the New York Times, which regularly chronicles a couple’s courtship, marriage, and divorce. A recent column told the story of a doctor who made more money than her musician husband, and the financial problems they encountered during their marriage:

They felt really differently about money; they never shared finances or disclosed their earnings to each other. They divvied up their bills, but Alec said he was embarrassed that his income never came close to his wife’s. He secretly ran up credit card debt. In 1998, Cynthia discovered he owed almost $30,000.

“The secrecy of it made me very frightened for the stability of our home,” Cynthia said.

“Cynthia needed to bail me out by paying off some rent debt and that broke her trust,” he said. He undertook a debt-reduction program.

Their arguing intensified, though their fighting styles never matched. “Cynthia nagged me and I shut down, a bad combination,” he said. At the end of 2000, he moved out.

A bad combination, indeed, exacerbated by an unwillingness to talk about money in their marriage. This secrecy leads to financial infidelity: a refusal to clue in a partner about things like a job loss, or like in the case of Alec and Cynthia, an escalating debt.

My parents stress-argued about money they didn’t have, but they were on the same page about how much of it they did have. They argued about money because couples frequently argue about money, and the arguments only stopped because they had talked and yelled and cried about the specific issues enough that they eventually discovered ways to resolve them.

In the column, Alec acknowledges, “We should have revealed everything — debts and earnings — from the get-go. Secrecy did not help us, but I was too afraid to be open.” He says the divorce forced him to learn to become fiscally responsible, and Cynthia says she “is much less stressed.”

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