Telling your partner you are in debt might feel like the scariest conversation you’ve ever faced, but it’s a positive and important step in your journey to recovering from debt.
When you get into debt, the stress can creep into all areas of your life, including your relationship with your partner. You may need to work more and spend less, and this lifestyle change affects both of you. Feelings of guilt, shame and worry are common, and your partner may be affected by changes in your mood and behaviour.
If, like the people in our animations, you’ve been hiding your debts, this article will help you to start the conversation with your partner.
Getting into debt
Debt can happen after a sudden change in circumstances, or it can sneak up on you. A big event, like losing your job or moving house can change your financial circumstances overnight. Or, you may have been struggling to meet costs for years, spending more than you could afford, and leaning on credit cards to see you through.
Factors contributing to debt may include:
- Losing your job
- Having a child
- A change in income, like switching to Jobseekers Allowance or Statutory Maternity Pay
- Moving house or moving in with your partner
- Buying a car
- Going on holiday
- Personal or business loans
- Overdrafts and credit cards
- Payday loans
However you got into debt, it can be a shock to discover the full extent of what you owe, and face up to the decisions you’ll need to make as you get back on top of things.
If you have a pile of bills and final demands hidden away in a drawer somewhere – or if you’re in the habit of throwing them into the bin unopened– you’re not alone. When we were putting this project together, we spoke with several debt charities. All of them talked about how common it is for people to keep their debts secret from their partners.
There are many reasons you might want to keep things secret. In a new relationship, like the one in ‘The rollercoaster’, you want to present your best side. This could mean hiding things about yourself that you think your partner might not like, including debts. As the relationship progresses, you’ll need to have a conversation about your money situation.
In ‘The tycoon’, we see someone with sole power over the family finances running up business debts without his partner knowing. It can be hard to admit that you’ve taken financial risks which have had a negative impact on your partner.
If you’ve lost your job, like in ‘The breadwinner’, or you’re doing extra hours to cover expenses like in ‘The pay cut’, you might be trying to avoid worrying your partner. Perhaps you’re hoping another job will come along soon, or you’ll find a way to get back on top of things without your partner needing to know you've fallen behind.
Whatever the reason for your secrecy, trying to sort things out on your own could make the situation worse. It’s likely that your partner already knows something is wrong and, if you don’t tell them, they may draw their own conclusions. Meanwhile, your debt is not going to disappear just because it’s hidden in a drawer.
Getting ready for the conversation
Before you can admit your debt to your partner, you might need to admit it to yourself. Don’t wait for your debt to sort itself out. If you know you’re in trouble, act immediately. Open your post. Contact your creditors. Find out how much debt you’re in and make a repayment plan. You might find it useful to contact a debt advice organisation, either before or after you talk to your partner.
Whatever is holding you back – pride, shame, guilt, fear – remember that relationships are built on communication. Trust your partner to accept the full story and support you. Even if the initial reaction is less positive, your partner may have helpful suggestions once they’ve accepted the situation.
Talking to your partner
The sooner you can involve your partner, the better. The following checklist will help you prepare for the conversation:
- Find out how much debt you are in.
- Consider your repayment options and have some solutions ready.
- Think about how you would like to be told if the roles were reversed.
- Choose your moment. It is sometimes easier to have difficult conversations while taking a walk, or doing a familiar activity like cooking or washing up, rather than being face to face.
- Be prepared to show your partner your statements if they ask to see them.
- Don’t leave anything out.
Remember that you’ve had some time to get used to the idea of being in debt and make plans. Your partner might be angry, hurt, and shocked - about the situation, and because you didn’t tell them sooner. Give them time to take it all in and react. If they have questions, answer them honestly. If your partner can see that you’re taking steps to resolve the problem, they may be grateful that you came to them even though it was difficult.
Getting back on track
Having established the problem, act on it. If you don’t already have a repayment plan, the conversation with your partner might inspire you to start one. You can contact a debt advice organisation for practical tips.
As you take steps to get on top of things financially, you may also need to work on getting your relationship back on track. Your partner might feel betrayed, as we saw in ‘The tycoon’ and ‘The breadwinner’, and it takes time to win back lost trust.
Be open with your partner. Include them in your ongoing financial arrangements and be patient if it doesn’t happen as quickly as you want it to. If you’re struggling to move forward, consider getting some additional help from a relationship counsellor.
Life is marked out by milestones and transitions – having children, moving house, changing jobs – all of which can be emotionally difficult and financially expensive. Take some time with your partner to look ahead and prepare for future transitions. Identify your risk moments, and talk about how you will support each other.
Planning for these moments won’t make them go away completely, but it can help you and your partner face them together, offering mutual support and understanding as you take the next step in your life’s journey.