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Money secrets in relationships

Why we keep money secrets in relationships, according to Relate

Polling released by the Money and Pensions Service (MaPS) for Talk Money Week 2020 (9-13 November) found that 23% of us who are in relationships suspect our other half has kept a money secret.  

Money secrets can be colossal, like racking up thousands of pounds worth of credit card debt while your partner has no idea, or they can be a little more subtle. The MaPS research found that half of those in relationships (45%) have a financial product like an ISA or a loan that their partner doesn’t know about.  

So why do we keep money secrets from our partners? Having worked as a counsellor at relationships charity, Relate for the past 26 years, I can tell you that money secrets are nothing new and our habits are often influenced by the generations before us. We witnessed how our parents managed their money, whether they were open about it or kept their spending and saving habits to themselves. There may have been some messages such as "don't tell your father I bought this for you" which can introduce the concept of not always being honest about money. We may not fully understand why we do it, but we’re copying the behaviour patterns and scripts we’ve experienced from a young age. According to a Money and Pensions Service study released in 2013, the money habits you display as an adult start to be formed from the age of 3 and are set in place by the age of 7. 

It's also often the case that we want to do things differently to our parents. As children we’re familiar with hearing statements like “we can’t afford that” or “you should save your pocket money rather than spend it sweets”; comments that as a child essentially mean NO - you can’t satisfy your own desires – the power lies with the adults.  

This means when we become adults and earn our own money, we might be tempted to exercise our freedom by splurging on impulse purchases or buy something on finance instead of saving up. Despite this we can still hear the voice in our head saying “no, you shouldn’t do this” which could result in becoming secretive about our spending. We feel guilty or worried that we’re being greedy or selfish or that it might even lead to disaster. These ideas can be reinforced if we haven’t got to grips with budgeting and find there isn’t enough money left in the pot. Shame may come into play and further perpetuate the vicious cycle.  

In a relationship it’s likely that both partners will have had different experiences growing up when it comes to secrecy around money. As the MaPS statistics suggest, this means couples can avoid talking openly about their money and will often keep secrets or conveniently fail to mention certain financial products.  

In addition to family scripts around money when we were growing up, there may be other influences at play which could lead to ‘financial infidelity’. Wanting to maintain a degree of independence in a relationship can be one reason.  We also might keep a savings account or credit card private to get that buzz from keeping a secret. This links back to  “let’s keep buying this a secret from dad”.  In its milder form this can play out in adulthood as the thrill of impulse buying, but at the other end of the scale it can spiral into addiction.  

Having a hidden ‘escape fund’ is also surprisingly common. This is a tricky one. Having some money to call your own can be a healthy thing. It means that if the worst does happen, you have it to fall back on. The problem comes with the secrecy around it.   

Open and honest communication is key to healthy and happy relationships, and when it comes to the topic of money this is no different. It’s a great idea to establish a joint approach towards talking about money early on in your relationship. This could involve having a chat about your different attitudes towards money so you can understand what you agree on and then talking about how you’d like to manage your finances as a couple. You could talk through what kind of things you feel you should disclose to each other – for example if you’re making a purchase over a certain amount would you let your partner know, or could you take a more relaxed approach? I’d then suggest scheduling a regular time to talk about money because your needs, goals and priorities may change as the relationship develops. If there’s a lot of conflict, seeing a counsellor can be a really helpful step. Counselling can also help you work through the aftermath of a money secret revelation so you can begin to rebuild trust and find a way to achieve greater transparency in the future.  

Peter Saddington is a Relate Counsellor with an interest in money issues in relationships. Relate provides counselling for couples and individuals and is currently offering sessions via webcam phone and WebChat. If you’re over 18, living in England and your relationships and wellbeing have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in any way, including in relation to finances, you can access FREE 30 minute WebChats via relatehub


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