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The Truth And Consequences Of Love, Money And Deception

Rob Reuteman, |Special to CNBC.com
Tuesday, 8 Feb 2011 | 12:23 PM ET

Ever hid cash from your spouse or partner? How about a bill? Maybe lie about debt or income?

If so, you have plenty of company in modern America.

Jack Hollingsworth | Getty Images

Along with love and money, apparently come secrecy and deception.

We're not talking the kind of activity often associated with bank robbers and other swindlers. That's more about personal gain. This is more about avoiding pain.

"Money provides a potential conflict point in a relationship," says Ted Beck, president and CEO of the National Endowment for Financial Education.

“No matter how you frame it, what one does with money influences the other." says Prof. Howard Markman, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver

In 35 years of studying marital conflict Markman says that money is the No. 1 topic of argument among couples, young and old.

“But one of the major findings from our studies has been that it’s not the particular difficulties that matter, so much as how they are handled,” says Markman.

“Regardless of any couple’s actual blueprint for money, you cannot avoid conflict by having separate checking and savings accounts if you can’t handle issues,” says Prof. Howard Markman, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver.

That helps explain the somewhat startling findings of a Harris Interactive poll commissioned by Beck's National Endowment for Financial Education, NEFE.

Among the findings:

  • 31 percent of people who combined finances with their significant other have been deceptive with their spouse or partner about money.
  • 60 percent of that group hid cash.
  • 54 hid a minor purchases.
  • 34 percent said they lied about finances, debt or income.
  • 15 percent said they have had hidden bank accounts.

And lest, you think there are no consequences.

Two of three adults say a current or past relationship was affected by some kind of financial infidelity, with 19 percent saying it led to separation of combined finances and 16 percent saying it led to divorce.

Markman said his own work confirms the survey’s findings about divorce. Several years ago, the Center for marital studies did a random sampling of divorced people in four southern states, asking what caused the downfall of their marriage.

Love and Money - See Complete Coverage
Love and Money - See Complete Coverage

“Money was right in the middle, causing about 20 percent of the breakups,” says Markham.

“If a man or woman deceives you about something, it’s infidelity, however you define it,” he says. “The deceived partner thinks ‘if he or she can lie about this, what’s going on in other major categories?”

Markman recalls counseling a successful couple in which the husband was the major breadwinner, the wife had plenty of money to spend and the children went to good schools.

“Then the wife started getting weird calls from bill collectors,” Markman explains. “She confronted him and he lied, denying any problems. It turned out he had a major gambling problem. Those business trips to Cleveland were actually gambling junkets to Las Vegas. They are trying to work it out, but it destroyed their financial well-being, and rebuilding trust is very difficult.”

Truth In Spending

Markman works with premarital couples on their communication strategies in a program called Love Your Relationship.

“The goal is to provide them with conflict management skills early on,” says Markman, co-author of the book, "You Paid How Much For That?: How to Win at Money Without Losing at Love."

“Most couples don’t possess the skills to talk about money." he adds. "They simply don’t know how to talk supportively with each other, how to understand diverse perspectives.”

Markman's not suggesting anything as drastic as having the couple enter therapy to resolve their money issues.

“I’m talking about things like education, workshops, relationship coaching,” he says. “They need to learn to work together as a team to come up with agreements. Money is a conflict starter that comes up every day. Everyone is always thinking about money, especially in times of economic difficulty. Couples need to know the importance about being able to talk about things. Getting it out there in a safe environment is important,”

David Bach, author of "Smart Couples Finish Rich", says he’s spoken in his seminars to thousands of couples about their financial fights, always asking them when they discuss money at home. The most-frequent answer is when they’re paying their bills, he says.

“It’s often the most reactive time to discuss money because it’s very stressful,” he says.

Couples should plan a pre-arranged monthly time to discuss money, says Bach. “I call this time a ‘money date’—an hour a month to sit down with an agenda to go over the family finances at a time you are both mentally ready and can make working on the money together a team effort rather than a war of the finances.”

Bach suggests using an online website like mint.com or debtwise.com that simply shows where all the family spending is taking place.

“It’s extremely helpful to show both of you exactly what is going on at home with the money in black and white,” says Bach.

So, if you want to avoid deception and embrace communication, try some of this tips for couples from NEFE.

  • Set Joint Goals.

Talk about what you and your partner each want from life, and choose goals that you want to reach together. Discuss what changes you each can make in your money habits to help you reach those goals.

  • Develop a spending plan or budget

This should include regular savings for financial goals. Remember to look back on your goals every once in a while to make sure they're still relevant. Add new goals and calculate amounts that need to be saved to reach them.

  • Set Limits.

Agree that neither of you will make a large purchase — say, anything over $200 — without first discussing it with each other.

  • Make It a Date.

Set a time every month — a money date — when you'll discuss how you're progressing towards your goals. Whether it's during dessert after a nice meal or a walk around the neighborhood, make keeping each other updated a priority.

  • Be positive.

Don’t hold past mistakes against your partner. If you're negative or angry when you talk about money, your partner will get defensive and the conversation will end. Be encouraging and forgiving, and offer to help.

And, of course, resist the urge to lie--unless it's a little white one.

Markman recalls another case—a wife discovers a hidden VISA charge only to find out that the husband was buying something for her birthday.