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How a Debt Confession Can Make Your Marriage Stronger

Gerri Detweiler

Secrets and surprises get romanticized this time of year — with secret admirers and Valentine’s Day surprise engagements — but in reality, hiding things from a partner is often destructive. But coming clean can, in the long term, make you closer than ever, even if it can be painful and scary in the short term.

Hiding debt is fairly common. (According to a national telephone survey conducted for the American Institute of CPAs by Harris Interactive,  three in 10 spouses say they have engaged in potentially deceitful financial behavior.) But, as with almost anything, there are degrees.

It’s one thing to lie about whether the $220 charge on a credit card was yours (it was a really pretty sweater) when your spouse asks in front of the in-laws, and quite another to confess that you have a secret credit card that is now near the limit and you don’t know how you can pay even the minimum.

Karen McCall, founder of the Financial Recovery Institute and author of “Financial Recovery, Developing a Healthy Relationship With Money,” says it’s important to think about the history and surrounding events that made you want to keep a debt secret. It’s important to first understand your motivation to hide. (Are you hiding a shopping addiction? A gambling addiction? The fact that you had continued to help a relative even though the two of you had agreed to stop?)

How to Prepare

If you’re trying to find a way to come clean about a debt, think back on other times you’ve shared something difficult with your spouse, McCall suggests. How did he or she react? If things went well, remind yourself that this is a person you can trust. Because the truth is, a money secret blocks intimacy. “If we feel we are in a relationship with someone we’re hiding from, you may feel ‘you wouldn’t love me if you knew,’ and you don’t have real intimacy,” McCall says. Telling the secret can give you the gift of knowing your partner loves you, imperfections and all. There is no more hiding.

And attacking a debt as a team can help with communication. Working to slay the debt monster is a common effort, and success is a joint accomplishment.

But that’s jumping ahead. Short term, expect your partner to feel angry and betrayed, McCall says. While you may feel better for confessing, your husband or wife may be shocked and hurt that you didn’t trust them with this information sooner. And, very possibly, too angry to talk. “There has been a betrayal,” McCall says.

If you’re harboring a debt secret, McCall suggests thinking it through before unburdening yourself. Once the truth is out, expect to feel vulnerable and exposed. And know that if your spouse reacts negatively, that’s natural. The two of you will need to rebuild trust and come up with a plan to make sure the problem doesn’t occur again. Most people will need some help sorting things out, she said. A therapist, coach or even a good friend can help you figure out exactly how you want to approach it. You may be ready to say, “I screwed up, but I have a plan,” or you may be so immobilized that you have to say, “I’m not sure what to do, and I need your help to figure it out,” she said. And if needing help makes you feel bad, know this: “‘I’ll figure it out,’ is not intimate. ‘Can you help me figure this out?’ is,” says McCall.

It’s Not Just the Money

While you’re getting ready to reveal the debt, consider assessing the damage it’s done not only to your relationship but to your credit. If you applied for credit alone, your credit scores may have dropped. If you’ve been using an existing shared account and hiding bills, it’s possible that the debt has affected your spouse’s scores, as well. You can get your scores for free with Credit.com’s Credit Report Card, and you can also monitor your progress as you and your partner work to rebuild your credit. It would also be a good idea for both of you to get your free annual credit reports. There will still be lots of relationship repair, but this will help both of you get an honest look at where you stand financially.

Next, says McCall, understand that this is the beginning, not the end. There must be a next step. Confessing is not meant to be a catharsis followed immediately by forgiveness and compassion. “The person coming clean must be prepared to change the behavior that caused the debt,” she said. Your spouse may have been blindsided, and may also feel hurt that you didn’t trust them sooner. Add that to a layer of financial worry.

It’s possible that while you are feeling scared and vulnerable, desperate for any sign that your spouse will be willing to work it out, your partner won’t want to talk about it, at least not yet. You must wait.

If you’re the partner who has just been let in on a debt secret, McCall says talking may be the worst thing you can do unless you can gather yourself quickly enough to take this advice: “It’s always better to talk about your own feelings rather than the other person’s behavior.” In other words, “I am shocked and angry” is OK, but “See, I knew you would do that” is not. In any case, it’s important for the person who is making the confession to understand that being on the receiving end of one is difficult, too.

Graeme Gibson, 37, of Seattle recalls what it was like to be on the receiving end of a debt confession. His wife, Kate, 35, had made an honest but expensive error when she applied for a student loan. When the first payments were due, she discovered she had taken out two $20,000 loans, rather than one $20,000 loan and one $2,000 loan, as she had intended. She waited a few days to tell her husband. “I was mad at her” for making an error after she had cut him off when he had offered to help her arrange for the loan, he acknowledges. Short term, trust issues were difficult. Longer term, “I believe she knows we can discuss things. We have better communication on financial things … no shutting each other down.” And Kate, a first-grade teacher, is back in school, but the Gibsons are paying as she goes. “I like investing in her,” Graeme says.

- Additional reporting by Bev O’Shea.

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