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In the last two columns, we’ve focused on financial infidelity and secret spending. This week, let’s look at the good news. Couples can recover from financial infidelity and learn to change the behaviors behind it. In the Healing Money Issues workshops I co-facilitate through Onsite Workshops, we’ve seen some incredible transformations.
1. Each person needs to do his or her own financial recovery work. Before you can deal with money issues in a relationship, it’s essential to become aware of and accept responsibility for your own destructive money behavior. One way to begin that work is to identify your own money scripts, or unconscious beliefs about money. (For more information on money scripts and ways to begin changing them, go to www.klontzkahler.com or www.consciousfinance.com.)
2. Face the possibility that addictions or compulsive behaviors might be part of the secret spending. A gambling addiction is one common reason for taking joint money and lying about spending. Alcoholism and drug abuse can also eat away at family finances and be responsible for financial infidelity. To quote one of my clients, who used to be married to an alcoholic, “Alcoholism isn’t just an emotionally destructive disease. It’s also an expensive one.”
Spending itself can also be an addiction. I’ve worked with people who described getting the same “highs” from spending that addicts get from drugs or alcohol. Sometimes the secret spender simply isn’t able to stop without professional help and long-term support.
3. Commit to honesty and full disclosure in the relationship. Both partners must be willing to change in order to begin healing from the financial infidelity. A crucial first step is a commitment to stop keeping secrets from each other.
4. Both partners agree to take responsibility for the family finances. This means working together to create a realistic spending plan, to continue following that plan, and to solve any problems such as excessive debt. It doesn’t matter who actually writes the checks and pays the bills, but it’s important that both partners commit to learning the basics of money management. It’s also important for both to accept joint responsibility for managing their money.
5. Each partner needs to have some money that is his or her own to spend. Working as partners and committing to financial fidelity doesn’t mean turning into auditors who police every penny the other spends. Quite the opposite is true. It’s important for the joint spending plan to include separate allowances for the partners to spend however they wish. This amount can be large or small, depending on the available resources, but it’s important that it be equal.
6. Work to understand your own style and comfort zone as a couple. Many couples pool all their income and manage all their money jointly. Others are more comfortable keeping some of their finances separate. Neither approach is necessarily right or wrong. It is important, though, to be honest and open about your finances even if you manage them somewhat separately.
7. Get the help you need. Learning money management skills may require taking a class or buying (and reading!) books on personal finance. It may be helpful to get advice from a financial planner or work with a therapist trained in money issues. This is especially true for couples who need to heal from and change a long-time pattern of distrust and dishonesty.
8. Accept the reality that change takes time and effort. Learning healthier money behavior as a couple won’t happen overnight, but it can and will happen if both partners are willing to change. The result—a stronger and more comfortable partnership—is well worth the effort.