Card games to matrimony, no one likes to be associated with a cheater. But has it ever occurred to you that you yourself might be committing infidelity, not in the bedroom but in the financial realm? That’s also a serious relationship issue, maybe even a deal breaker. But before you can reform, you should understand what financial unfaithfulness involves and who’s most likely to start exhibiting this pattern of behavior. Here’s the working definition, followed by some glaring indicators and some potential solutions.

Just what is financial infidelity?

While sneakily emptying all the accounts or spending freely without your spouse’s agreement has been a subject of country songs and I Love Lucy episodes, it’s awful when it enters your relationship. The concept is pretty simple. Financial infidelity occurs when a couple has merged finances and one lies to the other about how they use funds or how much money they make. While some people were raised in families where both parents played that game and no one seemed the wiser, the issue can spell disaster for a relationship.

This type of lying is so serious experts rank it right up there with domestic abuse and a continuing extramarital relationship as an indicator divorce is (or should be) imminent. “People will come to me and say, ‘My husband changed accounts. He’s moving money.’ That’s a sign to me that he’s already ready to get out of the marriage and move onto the divorce stage,” Manhattan divorce attorney Dawn Cardi told Woman’s Day.

41 percent are fiscally unfaithful

The issue is pretty widespread, according to studies like the 2018 Harris Poll publicized by the National Endowment for Financial Education. It found 41 percent of people in combined-finance couples owned up to deceiving their mate on some financial matter. A CreditCard.com survey found the issue was twice as likely among Millennials.

As for anyone who’s secretly spending or hiding large sums from their mate, don’t underestimate the fallout if (or should we say when) you’re caught. “Financial infidelity may seem benign, perhaps someone hides a purchase, receipt or even a little cash on the side,” Ted Beck, president and CEO of NEFE explained on the website. “But this unfaithfulness can escalate to a more severe level of offense, like concealing an account, lying about the amount of income you earn or being secretive about the amount of debt that you owe. This impacts a relationship regardless of scale. It causes arguments, erosion of trust, and regretfully in some cases even leads to separation or divorce.”

Keep in mind, different couples forge their own definitions of financial infidelity. For some, even a secret credit card for extra clothing purchases might be too much. Others, though, tend to absorb the stress unless it’s one of the two most devastating types. Both draining the family’s resources for hidden gambling debts and paying for an extramarital relationship are usually in the “deal breaker” category, though counseling can work wonders.

Signs your spouse is fiscally unfaithful

Of course, you might not be the one who’s slipped into financial infidelity. How can you tell if your spouse is straying? The experts will tell you to be aware of a shift in your bae’s spending patterns. This is yet another case where the best approach is to follow the money. It’s not that tough to spot a partner who’s slipped into spending your shared funds as if they’re a single person, or intend to become one. If you’ve committed to sharing expenses, it’s important you both know each other’s salary. With that information, it’s fairly simple to detect if withdrawals, credit card charges and such are in line with the money you expect to be coming into the household.

Other indicators that your mate is “stepping out,” financially if not personally, include excessive shopping, evidence of newly opened accounts you know nothing about, and purchases of investment items like antiques or art. These are very hard to track after a divorce is in process and your (financially) cheating spouse might intend to store them until a later date. And if you catch financial infidelity in progress? Like all marital or long-term couple issues, you may want to seek counseling. If you do decide to try to work it out, make sure you take steps to correct both the financial and the personal aspects of the unfaithfulness.

How to avoid the trap

If you’re not in a situation of financial infidelity, great! To increase the odds you’ll stay that way, make every attempt to balance your financial management as a couple. “When you first get together with someone, you need to put all your finances in order,” chartered financial analyst Robert Stammers told Entrepreneur. “If you’re going to keep your finances separate, and don’t have any controls, that’s a problem, and you can’t get angry if your partner spends their money frivolously, because you have no way of knowing.”

Of course, any successful couple divides duties, including financial management. But even if one of you does all the bill-paying while the other manages household maintenance, you should both have a basic level of knowledge about your finances. Either partner should know how much the two of you make, what your home and other assets are worth, how much you save, and where your biggest spending occurs. It’s a great idea to set aside a little money so each spouse can have control of some discretionary spending without asking the other. That much independence is fine, as long as you’ve established the financial and communication habits that build the kind of trust happy couples are known for.