There are a few moments in my financial life that stand out. Opening my first paycheck. Treating my parents to a nice dinner out for the first time. Finally paying off my car. But all those happy memories were wiped from my mind when my boyfriend ’fessed up about his crushing debt.
We had been together for six years — and living together for three of them — when he finally told me about his massive debt. We’d also been pretty open about our money and had never hidden how much we made or how much we saved. Or so I had thought.
Memories flashed through my mind. The fancy dinners he’d treated me to on birthdays! The exotic trips for friends’ destination weddings! The weekend adventures to faraway places! He’d never once given me the impression that we should be on a tight budget — or that he was drowning in debt that he’d accumulated years ago.
Look, I’m not clueless about the landscape we live in: 81 percent of millennials have at least one source of long-term debt, according to the National Financial Capability Study. With those kinds of numbers, it shouldn’t have surprised me that someone in my circle of friends would be dwindling under debt of their own making.
But I never suspected that we’d be sharing the same bed.
His Money-Brain Disconnect Was Real
Like many others who live with debt, he was living in denial. The pop-psych term is “money avoidance,” and it characterizes the neural shutdown that kicks in when someone is living way over his (or her) head in debt.
Here I was thinking that we’d always been completely transparent about our life goals, wants, and needs in the relationship. Yet he never mentioned his credit card debt . Because he wasn’t thinking about it. Literally.
Initially, I panicked. Could our relationship survive such a dramatic turn of dishonesty? Could I survive it? His panic was mired in shame. Living with the stigmatization of credit card debt is burden enough, let alone being forced to wonder whether your significant other will question everything about you once they find out the truth.
When I realized that his secret was a terrible burden he’d forced upon himself, I started to see the problem from his point of view. His greatest fear wasn’t just saving himself from years of credit card debt but how my opinion of him might change.
I also realized that I’d given him reason to fear that.
My Money Fairy Tale
Unconsciously, I’d made him my knight in shining armor. When I found myself laid off for the second time in a year, I’d relied on him to support us without a second thought. That meant everything from carrying the bulk of the bills or picking up a dinner tab when I wanted to celebrate landing a new gig.
He saved me when he shouldn’t have. And I hadn’t seen that until now. That needed to change.
For one, we both had to see that we needed to be a couple in all things, maybe especially in our financial lives. For another, I had to confront myself.
The reality I’d created wasn’t sustainable for our relationship, nor would it be in any other. I needed to re-program myself not to be the financially needy damsel. I would not to rely on him to be pick up the tab on date nights or travel adventures.
I’m embracing my independence as a woman who can actually pay for everything myself. And the beautiful thing? I want to.
Beyond Never-Never Land
The most difficult part about living with someone who has been in debt is the fear it could happen again. But constant communication is key to any successful relationship, particularly one in which secrets have survived before.
These days instead of living recklessly, we have created a strategy that works for both of us.
We’re maintaining monthly calendar reminders to review spending. We’re splitting meals and adventures. We’re building more accountability in our spending habits by using spreadsheets to track where money goes each month. Tools like Mint.com and free credit card alerts have also been invaluable to allowing us to stay on track.
And we have survived. He’s still the same person I fell in love with, and there wasn’t anything that significantly changed about his personality, or his love for me. We just needed to shape our lives around a new reality: our financial partnership.