Bert Martinez was hiding something from his wife, and it was eating him alive. He was tense, uptight, and withdrawing. His wife Joelle knew something was up, but couldn’t put her finger on it. In the meantime, communication between them was shutting down, and their marriage hung in the balance.
But it was nothing like the reported Charlie Sheen-style coke-and-porn-star addiction that was undermining their home. Instead, Martinez was doing what almost a third of married Americans do: Lying to his spouse about money.
He was a brash young entrepreneur at the time, swinging deals on everything from Christmas trees to office buildings. Some deals went great; others failed miserably. And he figured he’d spare his wife the constant worry, by not telling the truth about the precarious state of their finances.
“I would do the typical guy move, and go into my own world,” says Martinez, a 48-year-old from Houston. “I always tried to figure things out on my own. I kept the lie going for five years.”
His epiphany came, ironically, after a terrific business deal that netted him $100,000. He wanted to blow it all on a Ferrari, while his wife suggested that wasn’t the wisest idea in the world. When the economy subsequently tanked, that cash not only helped them buy a home, it covered their expenses for a full year.
“All I could think of was how happy I was, that I didn’t have a Ferrari sitting in my driveway,” remembers Martinez. “I realized she had great insight, and that I wasn’t as sharp as I thought. From that moment, I resolved to be totally open with my wife about our finances.”
The decision has stood them in good stead, apparently: They’ve now been married 24 years, and have five kids. Their story of financial secrecy is more prevalent than you might think. According to a poll by Harris Interactive, 31% of married Americans hide financial information from their spouse. Whether it’s secret bank accounts, mounting debt, or falling earnings, there’s something shameful that’s being hidden behind the curtains.
“It’s unfortunate, but not uncommon,” says Olivia Mellan, a psychotherapist in Washington, D.C. and author of books like Money Harmony and Overcoming Overspending. “There are secret stashes, there’s debt, there are even addictions or mistresses. And we’re afraid and don’t want conflict, and so we rationalize that for the peace of the relationship, we should say nothing.”
That might seem like the easy short-term solution. But financial secrets have a nasty habit of coming out sooner or later. And that’s enough to destroy mutual trust, and potentially torpedo a relationship entirely. A few tips on coming clean:
Find the right time.
Wait for a quiet, intimate moment, and then break the bad news in the most respectful and empathetic manner possible. “Start by saying you feel bad about this, but that you need to be honest, for the sake of the relationship. Forgive me,” says Mellan. “Then be ready to work through their feelings of betrayal. If there’s good will in a marriage, and people are regretful, then it can be solved.”
Share your credit record.
When lenders want to get the full story on a potential borrower, what do they do? They pull your credit record. That’s because it’s a bottomless trove of information, about everything from late payments to the number of credit lines you’re juggling. In that same spirit, pledge with your beloved to share credit reports, says Denise Winston, a financial educator in Bakersfield, Calif. and creator of the website moneystarthere.com. Otherwise, when you’re both applying for a home or car loan, the truth could come out in shocking fashion. “I saw this all the time as a banker,” says Winston. “Huge trust issues explode.”
Focus on the positives.
Revealing a lie is a gut-wrenching moment, no doubt. But think of the benefits that could result, not only for your finances but for your marriage as a whole. “When I stopped lying about our finances, it took tons of pressure off me,” says Martinez, now a successful sales and marketing trainer. “Now we’re both involved in the decision-making, and both on the same page. There’s no more 800-pound gorilla in the room.”