Money Milestones: What one partner may consider to be a financial infidelity might not even be seen as such by the other person

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In an ongoing series, the Financial Post explores personal finance questions tied to life’s big milestones, from getting married to retirement.

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Ideally, one had a conversation or conversations with their significant other about financial planning before they committed to a life together. How much of the money is yours, how much is theirs and what you both share are all critical to figure out before you’re a few years on from “I do.” Yet, sometimes, despite the best efforts of both parties, financial infidelity can occur.

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Financial infidelity isn’t necessarily limited to just couples, but it occurs when one person in a group with combined finances lies about excessively large purchases or hidden debts. In the email age, hiding debts is easier than ever. But approaching such conversations from the point of view of either the financial libertine or the partner in the dark is as hard as ever.

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“Every individual on the planet has a different experience with money,” said Aileen Miziolek, a certified financial planner at the Family Business Consulting Group. “If people are not self-aware (of that experience), they may be sabotaging themselves in their relationship and not really even realizing what they’re doing.”

In Miziolek’s experience, some of the most common root causes of financial infidelity are fear, such as a fear of not having enough, coming from a less wealthy background than their spouse, or a preexisting lack of trust in the relationship. Occasionally, it’s as simple as a lack of financial literacy.

Sometimes, though, the cause is less complicated: the relationship lacks the necessary structures.

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“One person may be OK with a loosey-goosey structure, another person may need (a detailed) structure to understand how they’re doing at achieving their goals,” Miziolek said. “Both people have to be aware of their own structures and both people have to be aware of each other’s and put the right structures in place to help them succeed.”

For the person responsible for the infidelity, Miziolek recommends asking themselves why they are afraid to have a conversation about money with their partner before they commit the sin.

One answer may be embarrassment, something personal finance author Kelley Keehn said is a common thread in conversations around financial infidelity that she’s been privy to.

“It’s the anger, the frustration of having to explain themselves, it’s the embarrassment of having to hide the purchase, but they still feel justified in the purchase,” she said. “A very kind of child-parent (relationship).”

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Ideally, both partners are as open as possible when discussing past or current infidelities. But since money is never just about money, there may be a need for outside help such as a financial adviser or even a couples therapist to move past the indiscretion.

What one partner may consider to be a financial infidelity might not even be seen as such by the other person, which can understandably complicate the idea that both have to trust each other to make good financial decisions.

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There’s also a grey area between infidelity and annoyance, Keehn said. Something such as secretly ordering Uber Eats at work every day for a span of time might not break any strict agreement a couple has, but it would be fair for the other partner to be “a little upset” at the expense. The easiest way to avoid these pitfalls is to hash out your individual and partnered financial needs.

At the same time, there may be future emergencies that warrant immediate spending. Obviously, it’s a bad idea to keep these events a secret from your significant other, but there’s also an ideal way to deal with them.

“You can just keep focusing the conversation to, ‘Well, I did the best to my ability with the information I had, what would you like me to do in the future? If you were in my situation, what would you have done?’” Keehn said. “I also think some self-forgiveness is important, knowing that you did the best that you could with the information you had.”

The question of whether or not couples are able to come back from a financial infidelity once they’re discovered really depends on the transgression in question. It matters what each considers to be an infidelity and the circumstances surrounding it. All relationships have an arc, and sometimes one event can end it all.

“I guess it depends on the degree of the financial infidelity, how long it was going on, and how much of a shock it was to the other person,” Keehn said. “It can end a relationship for sure.”

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