DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right. So there's marital infidelity. What about financial infidelity? This is when people hide their accounts, their debts or their spending habits from their spouses or partners. Studies estimate up to 40% of American adults admit to some form of this. And therapists and financial advisers say it can really undermine relationships because of all the lies. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports on one couple's journey from deception to disclosure.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Ann Blaine met Ed Coambs 15 years ago at a party he hosted in Houston. At 23, Coambs already had his financial act together.
ANN COAMBS: He owned a house already. And he had a job, and he managed his budget.
NOGUCHI: Blaine was three years older and saddled with dental school debt. She found his financial security super sexy.
A COAMBS: I thought, gosh, this - I've hit the jackpot. This is amazing.
NOGUCHI: They married and settled in Charlotte, N.C. They had some differing views about money.
ED COAMBS: Well, I never really had the idea that people would, in a marriage, keep their money in separate accounts or hidden from each other. Joint accounts was the way that my parents managed the household finances.
A COAMBS: I was real skittish about that, I guess 'cause my parents went through a not-very-pretty divorce.
NOGUCHI: But these differences, they negotiated.
A COAMBS: Eventually, I got around to saying, OK, let's do this. So, like, all of our accounts were mutual and shared.
NOGUCHI: That sharing extended to Anne Coambs's dental practice. Ed Coambs stayed home with their boys while his wife supported them. Later, he returned to school to become a therapist. But his counseling practice was slow to take off.
E COAMBS: I had a period of struggle. It had to deal with my own insecurities and what it meant for me to be a provider or not being a provider. And I borrowed more money and wasn't talking to my wife about it.
NOGUCHI: Ironically, his practice focused on financial therapy - counseling for couples fighting about money. Meanwhile, Coambs himself secretly borrowed thousands of dollars on a credit card. Over the following year, that debt metastasized to over $20,000. He told himself he'd repay it as he won more clients.
E COAMBS: I just need more time.
NOGUCHI: But every month, the debts grew. His wife? She didn't notice.
A COAMBS: I'll be honest. I was probably more oblivious than I'd like to admit that I was.
NOGUCHI: Guilt consumed Ed Coambs. He thought about it hourly.
E COAMBS: Even talking about this with you now, like, I have my own sense of shame that's coming over me 'cause I'm like, man, did I really do that?
NOGUCHI: He agreed to tell his story because he thinks it might help others in the same boat. The few academic studies on the subject say between a quarter to about 40% of American adults deceive their partners financially. Ted Rossman is an industry analyst for creditcards.com.
TED ROSSMAN: It does seem that financial infidelity is on the rise.
NOGUCHI: His firm's recent survey found millennials twice as likely to hide money or accounts from partners than other generations. And digital life makes doing so easier.
ROSSMAN: You can sign up for the account. You can get the statements. You can do your spending, all without anything showing up in the mail.
NOGUCHI: Ed Coambs kept his secret under wraps for a year. The debt grew. Even to him, it made no sense. His job, after all, involved helping couples navigate financial conflict. His wife called him Mr. Financially Responsible.
E COAMBS: It is ironic.
NOGUCHI: He says the strain isolated and depressed him.
E COAMBS: For the most part, people thought, well, Ed's successful. He's smart. He's capable. Internally, I just - nothing else felt further from the truth.
NOGUCHI: Ultimately, the truth did come out. One night, after their three sons went to bed, he told her. Ann Coambs recalls the initial shock.
A COAMBS: In the span of, you know, a couple minutes, you're like - what just got swept out from underneath me?
NOGUCHI: Then she got angry.
A COAMBS: Everything in me wanted to just yell and, like, punch a pillow. And, like, I think when he's been so - we got to share everything, we got to do this for your business and my business together all the time - when that happened, the trust part was the hardest thing to get back.
NOGUCHI: Getting it back required couples counseling, apologies, transparency, time. Even in forgiveness, she admits, she resented repaying his debts.
A COAMBS: Like, I don't want to do that. I feel like you should bail yourself out for what you cost.
NOGUCHI: It's been over two years since he came clean. Ed Coambs says he's learned to empathize with those like himself, who break their own moral code, and people like his wife, who work hard to forgive.
And are people, generally speaking, able to move through that?
E COAMBS: You know, you heard me take a deep breath because it's easy to talk about on the phone in an interview, and it's harder work to do week in and week out.
NOGUCHI: To those still hiding in the shadows, both he and his wife say - come forward, the sooner the better. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News.
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