Can Your Marriage Bounce Back from Financial Infidelity?

Can Your Marriage Bounce Back from Financial Infidelity?


Can Your Marriage Bounce Back
from Financial Infidelity?

Like sexual or emotional cheating, financial infidelity can sink a relationship. But if each partner is willing to put in the work, they can often heal—as well as resolve the underlying issues that paved the way for it in the first place. Financial psychology specialist Alex Melkumian, PsyD, LMFT, works with couples when one partner’s financial behavior has crossed a line.

A Q&A with Alex Melkumian, PsyD, LMFT

What is financial infidelity?

Financial infidelity deals with secrecy or lack of intimacy when one partner lies to or deceives the other about their shared money.

Defining what that looks like for a couple depends on the income of that couple—a couple making $5,000 a month is going to understand financial infidelity differently than one making $100,000 a month.

Why does this issue come up in a relationship?

It’s primarily fear. And our fears with money usually come down to two things: First is the fear of not getting what we want. Which in financial infidelity sounds like, “As soon as I say something to my partner, they’re likely to shut this idea down. I don’t want to be this vulnerable. It’s much easier to just go and buy that purse or that gadget that I really wanted and not bring it up.”

Second is the fear of losing what we have. Here, it’s the fear of losing the autonomy to spend money the way we want. Opposites attract in relationships, and that’s true for our financial habits. The most common scenario I see is when a saver marries a spender—one of them values prudence with money and the other values the ability to spend more freely. When your finances are combined and you’re not talking about it, things get complicated.

Do you find that financial infidelity is often a symptom of a larger issue?

Financial infidelity is a maladaptive way of dealing with repressed emotions. Most people don’t understand their own personal financial psychology. They haven’t taken the time to understand why they feel what they feel or believe what they believe about money. That’s because very few people have the open conversations with family and friends that lead to a healthy relationship with money.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in economics for research that determined that financial decisions are much more often made based on emotion than rationality. And it happens that our most common emotions around money are shame and deprivation. When we don’t explore how our unconscious emotions impact our decisions, it’s shame and deprivation that end up guiding what we do with money.

Where do you have couples start when they come to you for help?

If a person or a couple is in crisis, we have to deal with that particular crisis first. Until that crisis is resolved, we can’t really get to deeper issues underlying the scenario. With couples where there is a spender and a saver, we have to determine the practical or emotional sides of the issue and then design a unique treatment that will address both those sides.

The starting point is to delve into their money story, both as a couple and as individuals. It’s a nonthreatening, creative, experiential exercise, which makes it a great place to start.

Each partner starts by writing out their money story individually, and then we have them write one together as a couple. There aren’t a lot of rules here—it’s an autobiographical, free-form writing assignment where you think about what money means to you and what it’s meant to you throughout your life.

Some questions we might use to get started:

  • What were your earliest money memories?

  • What did money mean to you growing up?

  • What did you learn about money in each stage of your life?

  • What key financial milestones have you gone through?

  • What was your first job? How much did you get paid?

  • What was your relationship to saving?

  • When did you start investing? What was the first investment you bought?

  • What has been your strategy so far?

Once their story is all written out in front of us, we can focus in on their emotions and their beliefs. It’s a rich, powerful exercise.

Do you find that most couples can come back from financial infidelity?

The answer to that relies on two questions: First, how big of an infidelity are we talking about? You can almost always come back from a partner buying a few extra things at Target and not telling you about it. However, if there are offshore accounts, if there’s a decade of income stashed away you were not privy to, if your partner opened credit cards in your name and ruined your credit…that’s a very different conversation.

The second question is about the strength of the relationship—how much the relationship means to them and how much they want to be in it. Couples can come back from the most difficult of circumstances if both parties are willing and there’s enough time and space and safety to process whatever happened.

Alex Melkumian, PsyD, LMFT, is a clinical psychologist and the founder of the Financial Psychology Center in Los Angeles. He specializes in financial psychotherapy.