Finance

What Should You Do When Your Partner Lies About His Earnings?

My significant other and I have committed to being life partners. After living together for a year, we bought a house. We split the purchase cost and the cost of extensive renovations 50-50. We own the house in joint tenancy. We do not share any expenses other than household expenses and split those costs based on income. I have been very open about my finances and willingly give my partner access to all my accounts as he is retired from a career as a successful financial adviser.

All I know about my partner’s financial situation is what he tells me: that he has various sources of income and that his net worth is 1.5 times mine. I have respected his privacy and decision not to share financial information with me. And I’ve trusted him to fairly split the cost of household expenses. I pay one-third and he pays two-thirds. We review expenses periodically, but lately my partner has said, more than once, that I’m not paying my fair share.

Last week we picked up our separate tax returns at our accountant’s office. We were standing together at a counter, and the clerk first handed my partner paperwork about e-filing to sign. I reflexively glanced over and inadvertently saw my partner’s annual income. I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. My partner’s annual income is five times what mine is.

I haven’t said anything, and I don’t know if my partner is aware I saw his income. But now our division of costs for household expenses doesn’t seem quite so fair. Based on income, my share would be 20 percent and his 80 percent. What now? It seems like trust is in the balance both ways. Name Withheld

This man was a financial adviser, and I would have thought that a useful piece of financial advice for two life partners is to be transparent about finances with each other. Learning his income shouldn’t have come as a gut punch. Now for a few caveats. You can’t be absolutely sure that he lied about his net worth, which reflects the value of his estate minus his debts. Either way, it would be odd to apportion your relative expenses by net worth, which can fluctuate with the market value of your assets, including highly illiquid ones. And that clearly wasn’t the arrangement you two had; otherwise, going by his reporting, your share would be 40 percent, not a third. (If, instead, you paid in proportion to the income you now know him to have, your share would come to a sixth, not a fifth.)

Your response to what you discovered makes it plain that he has been misleading you about how much money he has. That’s a breach of your agreement and an act of dishonesty. I doubt you will be able to begin to restore your trust in him unless you let him know what you are feeling. Maybe his shifty ways are restricted to the realm of money; maybe, though, he simply isn’t worthy of your trust. People differ in respect of how much bad character they can tolerate in a partner. That punch to the gut, however, may reflect the realization that this man isn’t the life partner you thought you committed yourself to. The fact that you, in turn, have kept from him what you’ve learned and how you feel about it — the fact, bluntly, that you’re pretending to be in the dark — suggests that a serious trust deficit has settled between the two of you. Have that uncomfortable talk. But it may not be possible to pay this deficit down.

Some months ago, a friend of mine went to Kenya, and we discussed his not being vaccinated when he was planning the trip. Both his doctor and I urged him to get vaccinated because of his age, his weight and his high blood pressure. He told me I was living in fear and went anyway. He almost died there after getting hit with Delta and later Omicron. He was in the I.C.U. both times over a six-week period. When he did not return home as scheduled, I called a Kenyan friend of his in the United States about his welfare. I was told he was in the I.C.U. a second time and that this friend was dealing with the hospital and the bill. His friend then asked me point blank: “Tell me something, and I want the truth. Was my friend vaccinated?” I told him no and explained that I tried to convince him to get vaccinated before his trip. Now my friend is back home with health issues and refuses to speak to me. I suspect it is because I told the truth when asked about it. Was I wrong? Under the circumstances, I felt that his Kenyan friend needed the truth for medical reasons. Name Withheld

You didn’t learn your friend’s vaccine status as a health care provider or as an insurer. It would seem, rather, that he told you himself, without demanding confidentiality. While random gossip about someone’s vaccine status might violate the reasonable expectations of a friend, you were discussing someone’s situation with another friend of his, someone involved in his care. You had no obligation to treat what you knew as confidential. It’s not that the other man needed the truth for medical reasons. But he did have cause to inquire — this patient’s mulish and misguided decision imposed a significant burden on him — and you certainly would have been wrong to lie.

You think the reason your friend isn’t speaking to you is simply that you disclosed his vaccine status. I wonder. It could be the case that he lied to his friend and was bitter about being caught out. But people often find it hard to forgive those who have identified their mistakes; among the least welcome words in the English language are “I told you so.” The truth is that shameful behavior can breed resentment. But the shame here isn’t yours; it’s his.

My middle-school-age son has a good friend who is transgender. My son, our family and our community as a whole are generally accepting and supportive of people’s personal decisions regarding gender identity. His friend’s family, however, is not. Upon discovering their child’s request to the school to be referred to as “they/them” and electronic communication with friends exploring this issue, they pulled the child from school and relocated to another state. The parents have tried to cut off all communication between the child and their friend group, but some contact has continued through a combination of messaging apps, shared friends outside our local community and occasionally when the family returns to town. I have allowed my son to have contact with his friend knowing the parents would object. Here is my dilemma: The mother emailed me asking me to tell my child not to reply to any communications from this friend. My default position, as a mother, is to respect the wishes of other parents regarding their children. But I think she is asking me to ask my child to be a bad friend. I can’t imagine telling my child to ignore a friend who is going through what is a challenging phase of life under the best of circumstances. Name Withheld

These parents may have control over their own child’s outgoing communications. But your son is your responsibility. And you are entitled to help him decide how people should treat their friends, not least those who have been subjected to parenting practices that could be seriously harmful. I’ll add that the early teenage years are an important period for developing autonomous relationships independent of one’s family; this effort at isolation is a bad idea for all sorts of reasons. I agree with your default assumption about respecting the wishes of parents regarding their children, but that default doesn’t hold when those wishes involve grave moral or psychological misunderstanding.

I would be inclined to respond to this email by saying the truth. You don’t agree with what this family has decided to do, and you’re not going to participate in it. Of course, you may have reason to fear that candor will make it less likely that your son and his friend will see each other, in which case you could just ignore that email. What you shouldn’t do is agree to a promise that you don’t mean to keep.


Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.”

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