No matter what sort of relationship you are in, trust is vital. Once trust is gone, it can be very hard to recover. And that is true not only of infidelity and drug use but also of money. Indeed, debt, especially when hidden, often destroys relationships altogether.
Why People Get Into Debt
People get into debt for all sorts of reasons. One of the problems with life in a materialistic society is that people judge one another by income, status and possessions. Unfortunately, some are more susceptible to this pressure than others. They cannot accept their position. They want that shiny car and large detached house, and they don’t see why they should wait.
Another common, and closely related, explanation is the need to keep up. Obviously this has always existed. But in recent years it has been made worse by social media. Sites like Facebook seem to have changed from places in which you stay in touch and post photos of your kids to a platform for self-promotion. In the past, people stayed in touch with a few friends from school or college and that was it. Today, they can go on a social media site and hunt down virtually everyone they’ve ever known. And those people do not post photos of themselves arguing with their partner or stuck in traffic. Instead, you get the highlights of their life. Within no time you then convince yourself you’ve been left behind.
Some people are more vulnerable to debt than others. Certain personality traits, for example, can lead people down this path. For whatever reason, some never consider the consequences of their actions (this is especially common among those with anti-social or histrionic personality disorders). Instead, they act impulsively and live in the moment. Others are too trusting, optimistic or prone to denial.
Low self-esteem may also be at the root. Self-esteem depends in part on how we feel we compare to others. When they seem to be doing better than us – to own a newer car, live in a bigger house, boast a more impressive job title – we feel crushed. People who have never felt good about themselves, who have been humiliated and belittled since childhood, may snap. Indeed, the human capacity for self-delusion is astonishing. Some people will borrow vast sums of money and then convince themselves that it is somehow earned.
Then of course there is addiction. Some people become addicted to gambling, others to drugs. Either way, there is usually a deeper reason; sheer hedonism is rarely to blame. Again, the cause may be low self-esteem, or maybe a desperate longing for change or escape. Sometimes, people get into debt for reasons wholly beyond their grasp. At a deep, subconscious level it may be a cry for help, or even an attempt to smash things up and escape the normal routine. Men undergoing a midlife crisis are especially vulnerable to this sort of behavior.
Why People Lie
If your partner has concealed his or her debts, consider why. At first, you are likely to be blinded by rage and fear, but make an effort to understand. You know this person. Have they concealed the debts for noble or ignoble reasons?
Men often feel ashamed to admit their debts to a woman. In spite of changing attitudes to gender, lots of men still need to “be someone” in the eyes of their partner. The man should go out into the world to hunt, fight and compete with other men. As absurd and primitive as it sounds, that’s probably what is going on in his subconscious. Once, the men left to seek food and defend the hunting ground against other tribes; now they hunt for money and promotion. By getting into debt he feels he has failed and is less of a man. Indeed, men who lose their job can literally develop erectile dysfunction. They have been shamed and reduced, and so they feel unworthy of their partner.
Others may have concealed the debt for very simple reasons. The most common excuse will be “I didn’t want to worry you.” Of course, the real reason may be fear. Really, they didn’t want to be found out, and they certainly didn’t want the yelling and the tears. Lots of people just cannot face confrontation. Then again, your partner may have simply feared losing you.
The central problem is the loss of trust. If he or she has lied about this (and done it for so long, or so well), what else have they lied about? The floodgates open and people torment themselves with all kinds of fantasies. Maybe he is also lying about the real reason for these debts. Did he have an affair? Were the debts run up while treating a mistress to jewellery and expensive meals? Is he hiding an addiction of some kind? Is someone from his past blackmailing him? Maybe he did something terrible and is having to pay someone to keep quiet.
Another obvious problem is the stress and worry. Debt means insecurity and fear. It means scary-looking men banging on your door demanding money. It may even mean the loss of your home. Even petty debts cause tremendous upset. You may have had all kinds of plans for that money – vacations, weekends away, a comfortable retirement, etc. Worst of all are the debts that hurt those you love. For example, you intended to use the money to help your children through college. Or maybe you hoped to spoil an ageing or bereaved parent. Others planned to help a sibling pay her medical bills, or escape an abusive marriage.
Finally there is the effect debt has on those you love. Children often suffer stress, anxiety and fear, no matter how you may try to shield them. And of course they pick up on the tension between you and your partner, even if you decide not to tell them what has happened. Debt can also cause tremendous stress to ageing parents, who may be called on for a loan. Then there is the shame and humiliation of having to go to siblings, friends and even neighbors begging for a handout.
How to Respond
Of course no one can tell you how to respond. Every case is different. You alone know your partner, and you alone know the circumstances. Perhaps the most important question is why did he or she do this? Did they get into debt trying to provide a better life for those they love? Did they do it because of a psychological disturbance? Or were they simply greedy and reckless? In other words, were their motives selfish or selfless?
The second question is whether or not you can forgive. Indeed, do they deserve your forgiveness? Whatever you decide, you must be honest, both with your partner and with yourself. Don’t say you forgive someone if that isn’t how you feel. Be truthful. Say to your partner, “I need to see how I will feel in a couple of months. I hope I can forgive you, but right now I’m not sure.”
But you must also be realistic. We love people for what they truly are. If your husband has got into debt setting up a business, or your wife has developed a gambling addiction, that does not change the person. He remains the man of principle you fell in love with, and she remains the same sensitive romantic.
Begin by talking things through. But don’t do so in a rage, and don’t do it when the children are in the room. Let’s take a hypothetical example. Imagine your husband’s debts have just been revealed. An angry man with a folder under his arm appeared on your doorstep and informed you that your husband owes $20,000, which he has borrowed from various lending companies over a two year period. Their patience has run out and it is time to pay. This is the final warning.
First, do not scream and yell at your husband the minute he walks through the door. When you shout at people they cease to listen and start shouting back. Yelling and tears will get you nowhere. On the contrary, it will simply eat up all your energy (energy you are going to need) and shut down communication. Instead, send him a text saying “I have just been told how much money you owe. We need to talk. I am sending the kids to my parents for their dinner. Please get home as soon as you can.” Once he arrives, sit down with a coffee, keep your voice level and calm and say “right, tell me everything, from the beginning to the end. And do not lie.” Then let him do so, without interrupting, sighing or rolling your eyes. Everyone deserves a chance to explain themselves, and things are rarely so simple as we imagine.
Always try to get at the root of the problem. If you don’t, it is likely to happen again. Even if they do not get into debt, the underlying problems will manifest in other ways. For example, your normally placid, restrained husband has been secretly visiting casinos. Why on earth would he do such a thing? He, of all people – a dull, 50 year old accountant! Perhaps that is the reason. Maybe he is desperate to live a little, to feel some kind of thrill, danger and excitement. Pay off these debts without addressing that need and he may then have an affair, or find some other way to relieve the boredom.
Rage and self-pity will simply eat up your time and energy. Instead, all your focus needs to go on dealing with the problem. If you decide to forgive them, then forgive. Don’t use your partner as a punching bag for the next few months. Imagine the two of you have to take on part time jobs on top of your regular ones. Obviously, there will be bad days, days when you arrive home exhausted and irritable. Avoid taking it out on your partner. Either you forgive someone or you don’t.
Debt is a scary thing. Rather like physical illness it leaves people feeling weak and vulnerable. But never forget what really matters in life. Cars and houses come and go, and they aren’t worth destroying your family over.