Why I Kept My Debt Secret from My Husband

By Terry Gaspard MSW, LICSW

Learning how to have productive, low-conflict discussions about money is essential to handling finances in a healthy way. Finances are a touchy subject for all couples and a leading cause of divorce. However, when you get married, your spouse should be made aware of any debts that you have in your name. And after you wed, having regular discussions about expenses, income, and debts is essential to having a happy, long-term marriage.

Anything less than full disclosure about money matters will breed an atmosphere of mistrust in your relationship. Being in debt can result in a great deal of stress and being open about it with your partner will enable you to come up with a plan to improve your situation.

Despite the fact that financial issues and money problems are the number one subjects couples argue about and a leading cause of divorce, there are few studies that address the issue of financial secrecy or financial infidelity. The reason why many people keep secrets about money is fear of being abandoned, shame, and fear of being vulnerable due to past betrayal by a parent or partner.

In my case, I was a single parent raising two school-age children when I met my second husband Craig, and feel in love. Truth be told, I had accumulated debt from living beyond my means as a single parent, but I was ashamed to tell him about this fact. Wanting to impress Craig with my financial independence, I felt embarrassed about my debts and feared losing him. But after several years together, it was becoming more obvious to him that I didn’t enter our marriage with a clean financial slate and I realized that by keeping secrets about my debt and financial obligations, I was breeding mistrust between us.

Unfortunately, I dug myself into such a deep hole by keeping secrets about money from Craig for many years that I could barely distinguish when I was telling the truth from a lie. In retrospect, I’m not sure how forthcoming I would have been if Craig hadn’t discovered a credit card bill laying on the kitchen counter when he was grabbing a cup of coffee one morning.

Getting caught in the act of being deceptive felt awful, but it was the first step towards being vulnerable and open about my past debt and problems living within a budget. After twenty-one years of marriage, it’s still a challenge for me to be open about financial matters. But when I stop and remember the guilt and anguish I felt about concealing details about my past and current debts, I’m inclined to be transparent with him about even the smallest purchases.

Being in debt can result in a great deal of stress and being open about it with your partner will enable you to come up with a plan to improve your situation. Here are some steps you can make to address debt head-on as a unified couple:

  1. Having weekly one to two hour discussions about money.
  2. Taking the time to create a budget together.
  3. Seeing a debt counselor or financial advisor.
  4. Looking into debt relief or consolidation companies.

The first two steps above will help you to look at your assets and expenses, and to decide on strategies. For instance, Craig and I decided that one way to get out of debt was for us both to take on a second part-time job until our debt was payed off.

If restructuring your budget and coming up with solutions doesn’t seem to relieve your stress and help you to pay off your debt, seeing a debt counselor may be a good idea. Having a financial plan in place will help you to have less stress and you’ll probably argue less and feel more content.

In hindsight, my financial infidelity didn’t foster love and intimacy with my husband. It definitely contributed to our trust and communication problems. What I have come to realize is that when a partner withholds important financial information, regardless of their reasons, it is normal to feel betrayed. Many couples that I counsel have worked hard to restore trust. Others have chronic arguments over money matters because they don’t have the skills to communicate about touchy topics such as who pays for big things including educational expenses. Even smaller purchases like buying a car for your children can unleash other concerns such as who pays for car maintenance and insurance.

If couples have not established a bedrock of trust and vulnerability together, they might be more prone to committing financial infidelity. If you consistently feel uneasy because you can’t trust your partner, even minor mistakes or errors in judgment can make you feel vulnerable, in spite of your partner offering a good explanation for their actions. In other words, by keeping secrets or lying to your partner you put your relationship in jeopardy because he or she may have lost a sense of trust and security that couples need to thrive and grow resilient together.

Even though I have made progress in practicing full disclosure about finances, I still struggle with being open about money with Craig during times of financial stress, such as when our youngest daughter went to a private college a few years ago. Soon after she was accepted at one of her first choices, we began arguing about money until we both decided to restore our commitment to changing the way we communicate about finances.

Fortunately, we have reached the point where we have open dialogues about money weekly, and I feel safe enough with Craig to be transparent about my past and present debts. We have also begun seeing a counselor to discuss ways to communicate about money and other important issues in our marriage since we are dedicated to staying together and want to preserve our love.

Follow Terry here: Twitter, Facebook, and, movingpastdivorce.com. Terry’s award winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website.

Terry’s new book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, was published by Sounds True in February of 2020 and can be ordered here.