SALT LAKE CITY — It's not why he's going to prison, but President Donald Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen was financially unfaithful to his wife when he used a home-equity account to get money instead of withdrawing it from his bank account.
Cohen told investigators he was trying to obtain the money without his wife knowing, an action that financial adviser and columnist Michelle Singletary called "an extreme act of financial infidelity."
This sort of cheating is on the rise, NPR recently reported. As many as 1 in 5 Americans have a credit card or bank account that they hide from their partner or spouse, according to a recent survey from Creditcards.com.
The deceit may serve to cover up another moral transgression, such as an affair or, in Cohen's case, payment of hush money to a porn star. But even without an affiliated sin, concealing money is unethical and likely to harm your relationship, relationship experts say. More than half of Americans say financial infidelity is worse or equally bad as having an affair.
Moreover, money can be a volatile issue even when partners aren't hiding their spending, so much so that a specialized form of therapy has sprung up. Financial therapists coach couples on how to resolve their money issues, Yuki Noguchi reported on NPR.
Maybe you don't have a $130,000 line of home equity to secretly tap, but even hiding small transactions from your partner could begin a pattern of deception, Billy Hensley, president and chief executive of the National Endowment for Financial Education, told Singletary.
"The more common acts of financial deception include hiding a purchase or receipt, or maybe even stashing a little cash on the side. These acts may seem minor, but this can lead to more significant offenses like hiding accounts, lying about income or being secretive over debt," Hensley said.
This doesn't mean you shouldn't tuck some money aside to surprise your partner or spouse on their birthday or Mother's Day and Father's Day. And some financial experts argue that couples should have separate accounts to protect themselves in case the relationship fails. But having joint bank accounts and common financial goals can be an important part of a thriving relationship, some psychologists say.
“By having a joint account, a couple declares to one another that the rewards of their individual endeavors are jointly owned — they work for one another, not just themselves — and their dreams are inexorably intertwined,” Forrest Talley, a clinical psychologist with Invictus Psychological Services in California, saidin the Chicago Tribune.
Effects of deceit
According to a 2018 survey by Ramsey Solutions, the second-leading cause of divorce (after infidelity) is disagreement about money.
"Results show that both high levels of debt and a lack of communication are major causes for the stress and anxiety surrounding household finances," a news release from Ramsey Solutions said.
That survey also found that couples who said their marriage was great were more likely to talk about money frequently than those who said their marriage was in trouble. And nearly 90 percent of people who described their marriage as great said both partners work together on long-term money goals.
Couples fight about things other than money, of course. In fact, couples argue as much about children, chores, communication and leisure, according to one study.
However, “conflicts over finances were most likely to result in negative behaviors and misunderstandings, were more intense and lasted longer, and held more long-term significance to couples than arguments about other topics,” the authors of "Three Interventions for Financial Therapy" wrote.
Some young adults appear to be trying to head off conflict by avoiding the topic altogether. According to a 2018 survey by Bank of America, nearly 20 percent of millennials who are married or cohabiting say they don't know how much their partner earns. And 28 percent of millennials keep their bank accounts separate, more than twice the percentage of baby boomers.
Having separate bank accounts or separate credit cards enables partners to hide transactions from each other, as does the rise of electronic statements.
NPR featured the story of one North Carolina couple who had to go into counseling to recover from financial infidelity.
Ed and Ann Coambs, the parents of three boys, had joint banking accounts, but Ed had a business credit card that his wife didn't know about, Noguchi reported. Over the course of a year, he accrued more than $20,000 in debt without telling his wife. When he finally told her, she was devastated.
"Everything in me wanted to just yell and punch a pillow," Ann Coambs, a dentist, said, adding that this secrecy made her question what else her husband could be hiding.
"When that happened, the trust part was the hardest thing to get back," she told Noguchi.
Ann Coambs also said she resented having to help pay the money back with her own salary.
Nearly three years later, the Coambs' marriage has recovered and they said that they hoped their story would help others in similar situations. And while financial infidelity can significantly strain a relationship, it doesn't have to end it. In the survey by Creditcards.com, only 2 percent of respondents said they would leave the relationship if they found out their partner had $5,000 in secret credit-card debt.
How to recover
Financial infidelity is one indication that a person might need financial therapy, which is a combination of psychological counseling and financial advice, according to financial expert Robert Powell, writing in USA Today.
Others include spending compulsively or hoarding money, inability to follow a budget, struggling over how much financial support to give adult children, and financial disagreements with a spouse, especially if one of you is a saver, the other a spender.
While financial planners help people make decisions about what to do with their money, financial therapists help people deal with "deeper psychological experience issues that result in money disorders," Powell wrote.
Some of these issues may stem from childhood and memories about how our parents handled money and debt. "Many times, these individuals will repeat this negative behavior," whether it be gambling, hoarding or obsessive shopping, Victor Ricciardi, a finance professor at Goucher College in Towson, Maryland, told Powell.
When struggling with financial infidelity and other money-related stresses, it may help to know that you have plenty of company. "Since 2007, money has been consistently rated as the number one stressor for Americans,” Megan McCoy, who teaches at Kansas State University, said in USA Today.
Kansas State is the first university to offer graduate-level certification for financial therapists, according to its website.
But the website notes that financial therapy is an unregulated field and its training does not lead to certification or licensure as a therapist, counselor or financial planner; people have to obtain those credentials elsewhere. So before choosing a financial therapist, ask to see evidence of the provider's education and training.
For couples who want to explore their money issues themselves, Singletary recommends starting with a quiz offered at the website Smartaboutmoney.org.
The nonprofit offers a quiz and corresponding exercises for couples called "LifeValues." Couples take the quiz separately and then compare and discuss their answers. It's a useful tool, even for couples who have been married a long time, the website says.
"Even after a long marriage, discovering one's own core values can have a profound effect," the website says. "Grounding your choices in your needs and values can help to prevent and avoid poor life decisions."
After financial infidelity, patience and time is also required, as the Coambs learned. And, according to money management expert Dave Ramsey, anyway, no more separate accounts.
"Going forward, we have a whole new program, and the program is that both of you handle the money together. No money is spent in this household ever again without both of you knowing where it’s going," Ramsey told a man struggling to deal with secretive spending by his wife.