When Kirsten was in her early 20s, she and her then boyfriend, later husband, were saving to buy a house. They had been together four years, and had enough that they were ready to see a mortgage adviser. But, she remembers: “He was avoiding me even going to the appointment, saying: ‘I can go on our behalf – it doesn’t need two of us.’” He had a good job, he was earning a decent salary, he had a nice car, they went on holidays. The first she knew of his £20,000 personal debt was when the mortgage adviser said: “There’s no point even applying for this: you’re not going to get it.”
A survey in January by US News & Report sketched out how widespread so-called “financial infidelity” is. Some 30% of couples questioned by researchers described lies they had experienced or told in their relationship, the main one being secret purchases (31%), followed by hidden debts (28%) and dishonesty about income (23%). This is by no means a post-pandemic phenomenon, nor is it peculiar to the US. British research by Money Advice Service from 2015 also found one in five people lied to their partner about their earnings and one in four lied about their debt.
The deceit can be a form of coercive control, as one person seeks to dominate the decisions of the relationship by hiding key information. It can also just be poor communication around money, combined with the powerful shame of debt, corroding trust inch by inch. And it can, of course, be driven by other lies, other humiliations; a gambling or sex addiction is incredibly hard to disclose, and neither comes cheap. But more frequently, says Susanna Abse, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist who often works with couples, the cash is just “dribbled away”.
“In my experience, you generally can’t get to the bottom of what happened to the money,” she says. How often it leads directly to divorce is hard to say, for a number of reasons, including but not limited to the fact that separating couples always end up fighting about money one way or another.
The way couples deal with money has changed radically over the past 25 years, Abse says. Feminists in the 70s and 80s tried to make joint bank accounts and money sharing the absolute norm because most women gave up work when they had children. “Now, because women mainly work, there is much more autonomy around money and no idea of sharing whatsoever. I see couples with two children saying: ‘I paid for the shopping and you haven’t paid me back.’”
In the absence of any commonly held baseline assumptions about what is normal, couples are left negotiating from scratch what levels of autonomy and transparency they want and need. But that makes it sound quite easy. In fact, that intersection of money and feeling is intense and vexed.
Sarah, a thirtysomething from Surrey, explains: “One of the things about this particular kind of deception is that it undermines everything. Every photo that pops up, everything you think back to, you think: ‘Could we really afford that? Was that holiday the reason he was in a really bad mood a month later and mean to me over nothing?’ If he’d had an affair for six months, those months would be a bit of a sham. But this feels like the entire relationship.”
After that meeting with the mortgage broker, Kirsten was baffled, as she knew her partner didn’t gamble, didn’t smoke and didn’t drink much. He said he had built up debts when he was in his late teens, got into arrears and been too embarrassed to mention it, and she understood all that. They agreed they would have a joint account from then on and be honest with each other in the future.
“I then became very intrusive about money,” she remembers, “which was fine when he was penitent. But later, when I was on maternity leave, it flipped. I would just catch him out in lies all the time but, by then, everything was my fault. His line was: ‘You made me lie to you. You were judgmental, you were intrusive, I knew how you would react if I told you.’”
After clearing that first debt a decade ago, the couple bought a house, got married and started a family. Kirsten then found her husband had taken out another £40,000 in loans, as well as borrowing from friends, which had torpedoed their social life. “It literally is a web. He would find any reason for me not to come into contact with the people he knew. There are friends of his who still blame me for the money he owes them.” When they split up a few years ago, he hadn’t paid towards the mortgage for months. “I don’t think the anxiety and distrust will ever go away,” she says. “You might think you understand the concept of marriage, but it was only when he said: ‘I can’t afford to give you my half of the mortgage,’ that I realised, I’m still liable for the full amount. I can’t ring the lender and say: ‘My husband hasn’t got his half this month.’ I thought I was going to lose my home. I am still unbelievably embarrassed about the lies I believed.”
Daniel Coombes, a director at the London divorce lawyers Family Law in Partnership, says: “I have to spend a bit of time explaining to people that they shouldn’t feel stupid, or guilty, or embarrassed, because it’s very common.” And that’s not just about hidden debt, that’s about finances across the board. It is not at all unusual for one person in a couple to know a lot more about the marital books than the other. But when it comes to divorce, “buildups of debt are a really sad situation. The court can only work with what exists. If someone has spent all the money, then it’s gone.”
There is an exception, called the Norris add-back, “where you’re effectively trying to say: somebody has spent money inappropriately and I want you, Judge, to add that back to the pot so it comes out of their share of the assets,” Coombes says. But it’s not enough that the spending was done in secret; it has to have been “reckless and wanton”, and the threshold is comically high. Coombes recalls one case where the husband was shown to have spent a large amount of money on cocaine and sex workers, but because he had a serious problem with addiction, that wasn’t considered recklessness. “If it had been recreational, then maybe it would have been,” Coombes speculates, adding (with lawyerly caution): “It’s very hard to say; it would come down to the discretion of the judge.”
Very often financial infidelity, or the extent of it, is not discovered until a divorce is already under way, and couples have to disclose their spending to each another. A lot of people don’t realise this is non-negotiable and that secrecy in the other direction – hiding earnings, building up a savings pot with the intention of separating – is a mug’s game, since it will come out in the divorce. People don’t always think rationally about money. Hoarding money secretively if you have no intention of splitting up is also a bit pointless, since you have to explain where it’s come from in order to spend it. You would effectively have to launder it back into your marriage. “I think if you’re stashing money away, you’re not really in the relationship entirely,” Abse says. “You’ve got one foot out.”
Sarah first realised there was something awry with the family finances during lockdown, when she had the headroom to examine them. “Previously I just thought: ‘Gosh, we never seem to have that much left for saving.’” The couple had been together since university and had two children. Again, there had been a blip early on in the relationship where his personal debt came to light, and they figured out a plan to repay it together. But, more than a decade in, Sarah assumed that was in the past. It wasn’t until they were divorcing that she got a really forensic look at his spending. “At the moment, he’s about £40,000 in debt. It’s weird, it’s basically on nothing. It’s on excessive amounts of takeaways, coffee-shop spending. He’d go out for what I thought was a couple of pints with his mates – it was actually quite a few people and he was buying all the drinks.”
“Sympathy” would be a strong word, but there’s definitely pathos in Sarah’s description of her ex. “We earned a good wage between us. We had a nice life. I feel like he’s sunk himself over Deliveroo.” What she doesn’t regret is the end of the relationship. “Just living with him became stranger and stranger. Our conversations made no sense, because I wasn’t party to all the information. Fifty percent of his brain was going on: ‘How do I get the result that I need out of this without her finding out X?’”
So many things can drive secretive or impulsive spending: it can be an act of defiance, self-assertion, display, insecurity or retaliation. Often with couples who are mutually secretive, “it isn’t the money in the end”, says Abse. “It’s what the money symbolises about their fear of depending on each other.” Security is quite a nebulous concept, with many tributaries, but it feels very real when you lack it – so people attach it to money, which at least you can count, and end up “trying to earn more and more”, Abse continues, “with the idea of the magic figure: one day you’ll have this amount and then you’ll be safe”.
Equally, though, you can get into debt because you just don’t have enough, and then find the shame so catastrophic that you can’t admit it. Alan, a fortysomething from Warwickshire, has been divorced for five years. He and his ex had always been quite aligned on their finances and bought a house that was “well within our means”. But then his wife stopped working due to an illness, at the same time as they started a family. He started putting basics, such as food shopping, on a credit card. “We weren’t splurging. There was nothing flash about our lifestyle, we weren’t spending on fancy cars, we didn’t have foreign holidays, we didn’t go out to eat three times a week. We were living a normal lower-middle class life, spending £200 a month more than we had. I just never felt strong enough to say: ‘We need to change the way we’re spending.’”
It spiralled fast, with Alan applying for new credit cards and balance transfers as the 0% deals rans out. When they bought a buggy for their first daughter, he paid for it, panicking that she would look over and not recognise the card he was using. “It was terrifying for me if she did the food shop, because I was trying to tighten our belt without her noticing.” Things finally came to a head when he went to work having forgotten his packed lunch. “I had all these cards in my wallet and there was none of them that I could feasibly use to buy myself a sandwich.”
When they finally had the conversation, this secret debt was £14,000. “It’s the value of a family car,” he says. “People take out a loan for 14 grand all the time and buy a Golf.” It wasn’t the money that sunk them, in other words, it was the fact, he says, that she felt completely betrayed. But even that isn’t a standalone fact. It’s underpinned by a lack of communication that itself feeds back to a lack of trust. “Before we got together, I could cut my spending if I wanted to save for something. I just never found a way to do that with someone else.”
Lying about money is similar to having affairs only in the broadest sense that all dishonesty is alike. But even if the spending is irrational, the lies tend to be experienced as calculated, so may be harder to forgive than the weakness of the flesh. “In some ways,” Abse says, “it might be even more painful for people than sexual infidelity.”
Some names have been changed