Financial infidelity is not a legal ground for divorce anywhere that I’m aware of, but just because it may not be illegal doesn’t make it right. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it. Let me give you some examples of what financial infidelity looks like:
You and your spouse have agreed not to incur any expense over $300 without consulting each other. But then someone turns around and racks up thousands in credit card debt, decides to buy a new car, promises to pay for grad school for an adult child from a previous relationship, or decides s/he needs to take a break and goes on an expensive trip without the other party. Did this person breach a legal contract? No, but he certainly demonstrated a complete disregard for the commitment he made to his spouse, who is now left with a major dilemma: how many of these reckless decisions should I continue to weather before I need to pull the plug?
As a couple, you discuss the importance of paying down debt and saving for a rainy day fund while you each maintain your separate accounts. You each pay the agreed to amount into your joint account for joint expenses, so you assume each is doing his/her part properly budgeting what remains in a separate account. Then the rainy day comes– maybe it’s a whopping hospital or tax bill that was unexpected, and now your spouse admits she has nothing to pay off that debt and asks you to take care of it. Now you are faced with a no-win situation: you either feel like a jerk if you don’t help out your spouse, or you feel like a fool if you do bail her out and give her a free pass. Why should anyone be made to suffer as a result of another person’s irresponsible decisions, especially if this is not a one-time fluke, but rather becomes an evident pattern of behavior?
You and your partner do not agree on the importance of maintaining a balanced budget and saving, so as a result one or both of you starts hiding certain bills and/or funneling money into a secret account. This is so much easier to do now with online banking and the ability to opt for electronic statements that your spouse will never see. When you get any bonuses, gifts or unexpected refunds, you just keep your mouth shut because otherwise you know the other person will spend it or in some other way stake a claim in it. You justify your actions thinking that they are self-help tactics to either avoid a fight or protect yourself. But as the secrets mount, isn’t it inevitable that you will see your spouse less as a partner and more as an adversary?
I can go on with these kinds of scenarios– trust me after 18 years as a divorce lawyer I have seen a ton of these financial games between spouses, and of course it’s obvious why they are coming to me. Sooner or later, these incidents of betrayal will eat away at the trust and respect that every marriage so desperately needs to survive. Without those two pillars, the relationship is bound to come crumbling down eventually.
Whether it takes six months, or sixty years to discover financial infidelity, the impact is profound. It shakes you to your very core because the person you once believed would work to keep you safe has actually just stabbed you in the back, and you never saw it coming. And what’s worse is that these deep wounds cannot be seen by those around you, so they have no clue.
No one expects to get screwed over by their spouse, and that is why financial infidelity hurts so much, in many ways more so that some stupid affair. Why? Because this doesn’t happen on impulse, by accident, without thinking. Nope. Financial cheating is actually quite intentional, calculated and has to be executed quite methodically and deliberately.
So, how can you protect yourself? All I can say is be vigilant. Insist on financial transparency in your marriage, don’t let someone pull the wool over your eyes. As soon as you sense that something is off, say something. And above all, stay alert and beware of the wolf in sheep’s clothing– they are always quite charming at first, but their charms cannot and do not last forever.
By Regina A. DeMeo, Esq.