Vinod, a 38-year-old writer, believes that for some, love is a luxury and the price you’ve to pay for it could often be crushing. He said he learnt this the hard way when, nearly a decade before gay sex was decriminalised in India, his first boyfriend cheated him off money just because Vinod could not easily break off their relationship for the fear of crushing loneliness.
“He didn't earn much and used to borrow money from me, which at first I thought was OK,” Vinod told VICE. “At first, he would tell me that he needed the money for commuting, food, buying clothes, paying bills, etc. But with time, it became a habit for him to borrow without even batting an eyelid. I think somewhere down the line I got him used to it as well, which I shouldn't have.”
Vinod would keep a note of how much money he was lending but when he started noticing how his boyfriend’s wallet would never emerge from his pocket, he started asking him where the money he lent him actually went.
“He would avoid answering my questions and instead, always kept cajoling and telling me, ‘Baby, I will pay it back. You know I want to take care of you.’ He would spout such classic lines without hesitation and with supreme confidence. I think we believe a swindler because we are so needy when it comes to companionship that financial cheating sometimes counts for nothing,” he said.
In a lesser-known short story by American writer Kurt Vonnegut, we see the full extent of financial infidelity – its justification and absurdity. The Foster Portfolio, also adapted into a short film, is about a poor man, Herbert Foster, who discovers that he has inherited a million-dollar fortune and hires an accountant to help him invest the money.
The only catch: He will still not stop working hard over weekends or do overtime, even though his fortune has him covered for the rest of his life. The accountant only much later discovers that Foster detests his wife and their mundane marriage so much that he’d much rather work on weekends than stay home, even if it means not telling her about the fortune or using it himself.
He committed what is known as “financial infidelity”: when a person hides or withholds money-related issues and decisions from their partner.
Financial infidelity covers a wide range of behaviours. It could mean things that might seem too small or banal – like not filling in your partner on your online purchases or after-work happy hour bills. It could mean something much more serious too – like siphoning money from shared accounts, lying about your income or debts, lending large amounts without your partner’s consent, making extravagant purchases but keeping them from your partner, or keeping bank accounts or credit cards secret.
According to a recent survey by US News & World Report, nearly 30 percent of couples reported dealing with financial infidelity, with around a third of the sample set reporting “keeping purchases secret.” Another study from 2015 also found that one in five people lied to their partner about their earnings while one in four lied about their debt.
The pandemic has played its part in screwing up money matters between couples too. A recent survey noted that nearly 60 percent of adults said that the pandemic had increased financial stress in their relationships.
In the case of Rami, a 28-year-old lawyer, she started noticing a pattern in her boyfriend’s financial transactions a year after they moved in together in June 2020. The pattern, she said, could be distilled to a single motive: keeping up appearances.
“He didn’t tell me that he was fired from his job within a month of us moving in together,” she said.
For the next year, everything seemed normal. He paid his share of the rent money and contributed equally to the daily expenses. But then he started delaying his payments under the pretext that his salary was coming in late. Sometimes, it seemed that he had no money for weeks on end. Then, one day, Rami’s friend called her. Turns out, her boyfriend had borrowed Rs 30,000 ($400) from her friend with the promise to pay it back soon, but had been ghosting her for two months.
“When I confronted him about it, he just broke down. He had accumulated debts from almost half a dozen people, two of them being my own friends who never told me anything until he ghosted them,” she said. “He kept borrowing money from people with the confidence that he’d eventually get a plush job and settle the debts. But the job never happened and the debts kept piling up.” Rami eventually broke up with her boyfriend and moved back to her parents’ place.
Debts can be stressful enough, but when a marriage is headed towards a divorce, they can turn real messy too.
Daniel Coombes, a director at a London-based family law firm, told The Guardian that “when it comes to divorce, buildups of debt are a really sad situation”, as the court can only work with what exists. “If someone has spent all the money, then it’s gone,” he added. In many cases, Combes noted, the extent of financial infidelity is often revealed only during the divorce proceedings.
Relationship counsellor Ruchi Ruuh said that in her experience, partners in financial infidelity have some hard introspection to do about the health of their relationship.
“Every successful relationship, romantic or otherwise, is based on trust,” she told VICE. “Some partners want to hide their expenses or savings because they might be in an abusive relationship, while in other cases, the relationship could be working on fear.”
This was the case with Barry Rodgers, a 32-year old journalist – his relationship with his boyfriend was premised on financial secrecy.
“When I moved to Mumbai, I was earning enough to survive but not flourish,” he said. “But my boyfriend would want to dine at fancy places almost every second night. We started having arguments about it because often, he’d end up offering to pay and then use that to lord over me. This was a recipe for disaster.”
After the initial few years, Rodgers landed jobs that got him better pay, but he would still go out of his way to hide how much he was earning, lest he got pulled into dining at another upmarket restaurant and drowning his savings. Eventually, this culminated in Rodgers “disassociating” from his boyfriend — the dislike set in, communication was at an all-time low and sexual compatability was never solid, to begin with. Financial infidelity, he said, had cracked open the many crevices in their relationship. They broke up after five years.
Forbes suggests various ways of spotting financial infidelity before it’s too late: you see new credit card statements arriving in the mail, your name has been removed from a joint account for no apparent reason, passwords to bank accounts are changed without consulting you, there’s unilateral financial decisions, general unwillingness to discuss financial matters, and your partner feeling very paranoid when you stumble upon their emails.
However, in Asian societies where families are often close-knit and members feel entitled to one another’s money, lying about savings and earnings might sometimes seem like the only choice.
“In such societies, your partner might ask you to help their siblings if you have lots of money, and you cannot even say no,” Ruuh said. “Some relationships might be too enmeshed for any kind of breathing space.”
But, she insisted, concealing should not be an option if you want your relationship to flourish and be healthy. “You need to draw healthy boundaries in any relationship. If you don’t want your partner to know the details of your transactions, have a separate bank account, and tell your partner why financial autonomy is important to you and how that has nothing to do with them. Have that conversation. If you feel your partner is not listening, you need to reassess the whole relationship.”
Dominique Broadway, a financial literacy advocate, told CNBC that partners must consistently set aside specific time to discuss financial matters and have “money dates.” And the only way to go about it is to “show and tell” – from opening your bills together to putting all of your finances on one spreadsheet and reviewing them together.
Ruuh adds, “The onus is always on you to have that healthy conversation about boundaries.”
Follow Arman Khan on Instagram.