How To Level With Your Partner Who Makes Big Decisions Without You

Talking about money is stressful. Not only do more than half of the Americans surveyed by OnePoll and Questis think money discussions are taboo, but three in five fake their financial situation on social media to appear more stable, and 30% would also rather watch a horror film than talk about money. Two of the other preferred options: public speaking and sitting in traffic. For two hours.

Despite a tendency to avoid deeper discussions about finances, many couples do reach an understanding of spending limits. For millennials, that might look like an agreement that if one of you wants to spend more than $300 for something, it warrants a discussion first. For older generations, the amount may be higher. Problems arise fast in relationships when one person makes big decisions without consulting the other. Perhaps the partner shops secretly because they don't think the purchases are big enough to warrant consulting their partner, or maybe they feel too uncomfortable to have that conversation. What's missing here are the rules both parties can live with. 

If your partner is making big decisions without you, the way to level with them initially is to set up, and abide by, spending thresholds. Ask any divorce lawyer — couples argue about money, and incompatible or simply undiscussed financial philosophies are a top reason for a relationship split.

Leveling with your partner

There's help today for couples struggling with finances that didn't exist until about ten years ago, like consultations with a financial therapist. It's what it sounds like: a certified counselor who compassionately helps you manage money worries while also offering financial coaching. But, if you're to restore intimacy and trust with your partner, the first conversation needs to be a private one between the two of you.

It's a good idea to first arm yourself with knowledge. Licensed Professional Counselor Joyce Marter has identified financial trauma as a condition that can emerge from past chronic poverty, homelessness, or devastating loss. Though it's not a formal psychiatric diagnosis, many of the symptoms can resemble PTSD, including hypervigilance, avoidance behaviors (in this case, not opening bills or logging into accounts), and self-destructive behaviors like overspending. 

To prep for your conversation, couples therapist Elly Prior urges that you calm yourself first. Wait until several days after your discovery to speak and then keep a neutral tone. Gather evidence before you talk. Acknowledge to yourself what your financial responsibility is in the relationship and whether you're meeting it. A key strategy to use when confronting your partner is to avoid blaming and shaming; instead, refocus the money discussion on what your goals are as a couple. Discuss ways to realistically tackle any financial inequality in the relationship, and manage your expectations — your partner may not be able to shift their habits right away. If you need it, reach out for help. 

Overcome financial secrecy struggles with communication

We already know from research that most people prefer to avoid money conversations altogether and that it's a significant source of relationship discord. That doesn't make it OK for your partner to make big financial decisions without your input. If you wake up some morning to a surprise Mercedes in the driveway or notice your spouse opened a credit card in your name, you need to have a talk. The minute you combine finances is the perfect time to hash out your agreements so you can dodge this type of rupture.

Investopedia uses a catchy term: financial infidelity. They define it as one partner either hiding debt, hiding other accounts, or making huge expenditures without talking it over with their partner. It can simply mean they're lying about money.

Since we've transitioned so much of our financial lives online, you may not see evidence of the infidelity, like an account statement, arriving in the mail. Some red flags to watch for could be a habit of lavish spending on travel, big, even inappropriate gifts, compulsive gambling, mysterious withdrawals from your joint account, or an unusual amount of checks made out to cash. Now that you're faced with how to respond, you can do it. And remember, we all have varying influences, like how our parents dealt with finances (or didn't), so it's normal for couples to have glaring differences around handling money. The key is how you manage it. Blame-free communication is the right pathway forward.