My husband and I are both 30. We’ve been married five years. Several months ago, we decided to begin the process of becoming homeowners. After meeting with a mortgage broker, who mentioned he’d be checking our credit reports, my husband was distraught. He soon confessed that he’d opened credit card accounts without telling me and he’d racked up $5,000 in debt. This might not seem like much, but my husband is a full-time college student, paying his way with student loans that we’ll have to begin repaying when he graduates next year. I’m employed full time, but I also have student loan debt, and I make just enough to cover our expenses.
My husband feels horrible about having accrued this debt, which we’re now slowly paying off, but I’m still incredibly hurt. To make it worse, he spent every credit card penny on himself — buying music, books, and computer and video games. Before this, I never felt the need to police his behavior, but now I struggle to trust him. Recently, I’ve been noticing strange charges on our bank and credit card statements. When I ask my husband about them, he claims each time that the bank or company has made a mistake and he calls to have the charges reversed, but I’m suspicious. I also found a letter from a bank denying my husband an increase in a credit limit he’d requested — again, without telling me.
We have a peaceful and affectionate relationship, but I fear that his spending addiction needs major treatment. I don’t know that he has our economic well-being in mind or if he’s willing to be my partner in making a good life in the long term. What’s your advice, Sugars?
Cheryl Strayed: Your husband committed what’s referred to as financial infidelity, Spent. Like sexual infidelity, the healing can’t begin until the partner who committed the betrayal stops doing it. Your husband hasn’t done that. He confessed to his secret debt not because he was ready to change but because he knew it would soon be revealed. He apologized and carried on as before. Now he’s lying to you about what he claims are false charges on your accounts and he has also attempted to get more credit without your knowledge, presumably to accrue more debt, which is how he got into this trouble to begin with. I can’t discern from your letter whether or not your husband has a spending addiction (though it sounds like he might). What’s clear is that he’s still deceiving you about his spending. You’re wise to take this breach as seriously as you’re taking it. His actions have damaged more than your credit rating. They’ve damaged your trust.
Steve Almond: By my count, your husband has struck out. Strike one was spending $5,000 he doesn’t have. Strike two was racking up more charges recently. Strike three was seeking an increase in his credit line. In each case, he lied about his behavior, or lied by omission. It’s not just his credit that’s in ruins at this point — it’s his credibility. There’s no way you can fully trust him again until he acknowledges his behavior and his lies. He’s still minimizing this compulsion. He’s still lying to you, no doubt because he’s still lying to himself. You mustn’t accept the position of policing him. That work belongs to him. Your job at this point is to make the boundary perfectly clear: You will no longer tolerate his deceit, or his profligacy.
CS: It seems strange to suggest marriage counseling to a couple so strapped for cash, but I hope you’ll consider it, even if only for a few sessions. It’s on your husband to address his issues with spending, but it’s on you to assess if he’s up to the task. Is your husband motivated to stop lying to you about his spending or is he only going to continue pretending he is? The answer to that question will be the answer to whether or not your marriage is sustainable. Many couples recover after a betrayal, and some are even stronger for it, but this happens only when both partners are sincerely committed to mending the breach. By continuing to be dishonest with you about his financial activities, your husband is making it wider. Your problem isn’t that you’re married to a spending addict, though you might be; it’s that you’re married to someone who isn’t currently able to tell you the truth, almost certainly because he’s ashamed of it. You can’t change his behavior, but you can tell him what you’ll accept, and your letter strikes me as rather clear on that point. You want a partner who makes decisions that take your long-term economic well-being into account.
SA: Before you write off the idea of counseling as too expensive, consider the long-term costs of losing your marriage, or the misery of living amid his betrayals. Your husband has serious psychic work to do. At the moment, you’re literally supporting him and his educational efforts. I suspect he feels unmanned by this, and intimidated by the prospect of becoming a homeowner. His response is to retreat into consumption, which has a frankly regressive feel to it (i.e. buying video games). But like any addictive behavior, this retreat from shame only sinks him deeper into shame. Unconsciously, his spending and his lies are almost undoubtedly designed to push you away, because he feels unworthy of your love. These are feelings he’s going to have to face. You can support him in this work, but only he can choose to do it. This is the most painful aspect of loving someone in the throes of a compulsion — you have to recognize that you can’t rescue him. Nor should you stick around if he refuses to rescue himself, Spent. That sounds harsh, I know. But until your husband begins to confront the true meaning of his destructive behavior, your “peaceful and affectionate” union is going to remain tumultuous and painful.
The “Dear Sugars” podcast is an advice program hosted by Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed. The audio contains more letters; submissions are welcome at email@example.com. Click the play button above to listen. You can also find “Dear Sugars” on the Podcasts app (iPhone and iPad) and Radio Public (Android and tablet).