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May 23, 2011

Will Money Destroy Your Marriage?

marriage and money

Photo Credit: Richard Pierce

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Her husband turned out to have stolen around $40,000 from the account — and to have been leading a high-rolling secret life. "I was living in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, with furniture that needed to be re-covered, and he was spending thousands of dollars wining and dining other women while telling me he had to work late," Stein says.

The embezzlement could have resulted in criminal charges, but the cooperative's officials knew that Stein might lose her new daughter if her husband were indicted, so they offered to keep the theft private if he repaid the money. But his debts proved to be much more extensive. When his credit card tab and other liabilities were tallied, "The whole package was a little more than $100,000," Stein says. "I never would have believed he was capable of doing what he did." She ended up paying off his debt by herself.

No matter what the circumstances, the emotional toll of such duplicity can be life-altering. "There is no such thing as an innocent financial fib," says relationship therapist Bonnie Eaker Weil, the author of Financial Infidelity. "Secrets destroy intimacy, and anyone who is hiding money is also hiding their feelings. They may not think they're doing anything wrong, but they're used to being an 'I' instead of a 'we.'"

Weil compares financial infidelity to sexual infidelity, in motive as well as effect. "A lot of people get off on this — they get the same thrill-seeking, self-medicating, stress-busting high," she says. "It's a form of gambling."

But while one partner is clearly the perpetrator, Weil believes that both need to re-evaluate their behavior. "It's just like with adultery. Most of the time, two people unconsciously collude to commit financial infidelity," she says. "The person it happened to hasn't been minding the store; there were red flags, but she was in denial. There's magical thinking on both parts."

Many women are shocked to discover their own legal vulnerability as partners in a marriage, and some find they have unwittingly been implicated in serious crimes. Carol Ross Joynt, a former television producer, had been married for 20 years when her husband, a wealthy Washington restaurant-owner, died suddenly from pneumonia. Only then did she learn that he had cheated the IRS out of $3 million and was facing federal tax fraud charges —and that his death made her the defendant in the case.

"This was crazy. I hadn't done anything wrong. How could I be the defendant in anything?" Joynt wrote in her new book, Innocent Spouse: A Memoir.

But she had cosigned their tax returns, so the IRS assumed her complicity. Joynt's lawyers ultimately mounted a so-called innocent spouse defense, in which they described her willful cluelessness: "Throughout her adult life, Carol steadfastly avoided getting involved in financial matters because she knew they were complex and she did not understand them."

"I should have probed. I never did," Joynt wrote. "I didn't ask questions. I didn't insist on answers. I didn't want to know. It was marital don't ask, don't tell."

Such avoidance is all too common, according to financial advisers and matrimonial attorneys. "I'm disappointed in the percentage of women who are unaware of the family finances," says Leonard Ross, a Florida divorce lawyer. "They think they're never going to get divorced or separated, and they sign whatever documents their husbands put before them, and they don't have any idea of what their husbands are doing. Even very intelligent women will be ignorant about what their husbands actually earn, what their assets are, and what their futures really look like."

But when it comes to money, healthy relationships require candor and competence on both sides, according to the experts. "You have to have financial transparency," says Weil. In order to achieve that, couples need to establish responsible habits from the outset. "Before people commit to each other, they should get completely financially naked," says Thakor. "They should exchange a list of what they own and owe, their credit scores, what they earn and spend. You should sit down and discuss those items twice a year. If you do, you can ferret out problems before they become so large you need to hide."

The imperative is clear, she adds: "You have to deal with them before you have a foreclosure notice on the house."

*Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect the privacy of the families involved.

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