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Financial Infidelity: Is Your Marriage at Risk?

It almost doesn't shock us any more when men in power have affairs. But as difficult as it may be for a wife to forgive her husband, experts believe there's another type of infidelity -- one that involves money -- that can be even more devastating for couples.

Meet financial infidelity. This sort of cheating happens when one spouse spends a substantial amount of money without telling his or her partner. The problem is so prevalent that it's estimated to occur in one out of three marriages. While it may seem easy to forgive your spouse for buying a flat screen TV or a designer handbag on a whim, discovering he or she secretly racked up thousands of dollars in credit card debt can be a marriage killer for some couples, warns Dr. Doug Welpton, a Clearwater, Fla. based psychiatrist and family therapist.

Couples have always fought about money. But thanks to the recession, more partners are starting to admit to financial infidelity. One reason is because many families are struggling in this economy and have less discretionary income. Another issue is that credit is now harder to come by, says Welpton. In a worst case scenario, the spouse with the spending problem is probably having a tough time transferring high balances from one credit card to another and can no longer buy himself time before the debt needs to be paid off. As a result, the spender has no choice but to fess up and tell his partner what's going on.

Since so many of us aren't even familiar with the concept of financial infidelity, Welpton walked me through what he describes as the three levels of monetary cheating. Here's how he defines them:

Stage One - The Flirtation
A spouse has crossed a line when he spends a substantial amount of money without telling the other person. The tricky part here is that the actual amount that's considered cheating will vary from one couple to another. For some partners spending $200 at any one time could cause stress. For other families the amount could be as large as $500. Even more confusing is the person who makes lots of small purchases -- such as downloading music and movies off the web -- but by the end of the month finds it all adds up to a pretty hefty sum.

Stage Two - The Occasional Transgression
Even more troubling than simply spending too much is the person who then lies about it. Here's an example, say I go shopping and buy a new, expensive bathing suit. The next time my husband and I go to the beach he mentions he's never seen the bikini before. If I fess up, I've committed a Stage One crime. But Stage Two occurs if I fib and say "Oh, I've had this old suit forever. I got it on sale a few years ago."

Stage Three - The Full-On Affair
Worst of all is the person who has secret credit card accounts and racks up thousands of dollars in debt. While just one spouse spent the money, both now have to worry about how it will get paid off. Even if the two people divorce, chances are the couple will have to split the debt along with their other assets.

Don't be surprised if you find you're a tad bit guilty of a little infidelity yourself. Honestly, I think we've all transgressed from time to time. While marriage is a partnership, we also need some freedom. The important thing is to address the issue and come clean with your spouse. It's also a good idea to set some ground rules for the two of you to live by.

Tomorrow, I'll share some of Welpton's advice on how couples should approach their money and spending. The hope is that if you adopt his rules -- or some variation of them - you and your spouse can more easily remain true to each other and avoid committing infidelity.

Love and Marriage image by Hammer51012, CC 2.0.

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