Are clashing couples overplaying the 'financial gaslighting' card?

Clients shouldn't be so quick to assume financial infidelity, according to divorce finance expert

Are clashing couples overplaying the 'financial gaslighting' card?

The fact that Merriam-Webster chose “gaslighting” as 2022’s word of the year, with searches for the word spiking by 1,740%, may be a sign that there’s a silent epidemic of abuse and manipulation going on across the world. But when it comes to couples fighting over their finances, it may also be just a case of mistaken self-diagnosis.

“Financial gaslighting is absolutely serious. If that’s happening in a relationship, it’s unstable for the person being gaslit,” says Sara McCullough, financial advisor and owner of WD Development in Kitchener, Ontario. “But I would say it is actually a very small percentage of what happens in a relationship with money.”

McCullough (pictured above, left) defines financial gaslighting as a form of abuse characterized by the deliberate falsification of financial information, or deliberately providing false accounts of financial transactions over time. In the Merriam Webster dictionary, “gaslighting” is defined in part as “psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time,” and “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for one’s own advantage.”

As a CFP and certified divorce financial analyst, McCullough has noticed the word “gaslighting” being used in numerous situations over the past two years. In social media and everyday conversations, she hears the phrase “financial gaslighting” from people having disagreements over details about money, even if there’s no sign either party was guilty of deception or manipulation.

“I find that with a lot of my families, even the ones who’ve been married for decades and don’t plan to separate, there’s a strong tendency to be confused and uncertain,” she says. “We get our own numbers wrong all the time, and that’s not gaslighting.”

McCullough shared one past case of separation she worked on where her client, the wife, was deeply distrustful of her soon-to-be ex-husband. When they received his financial disclosure, they found he had moved money out of a bank account, with no statements to show where it went.

“She was very upset and sure he had been hiding money, and that he was lying to her again,” McCullough says. “We asked for the missing statements, and the husband sent them over through his lawyer. The statements included a note from the husband saying that he had been primarily responsible for the day-to-day financials and he wasn’t comfortable with that job.  He had done his best, but didn’t know what to do to balance out their income and expenses.”

As convinced as the client was that she was being gaslit, McCullough repeatedly pointed her back to the note and reminded her they received the information they’d requested.

“If this was financial gaslighting, we wouldn’t have received the information,” she said. “If I had gone down this financial gaslighting trail with her, it would have been very hard for them to come to a settlement. I don’t think I would have been helping the situation.”

Julie Shipley-Strickland, senior wealth advisor at Wellington-Altus Private Wealth (above, right), says financial responsibilities in households have traditionally been divided so that men are in charge of investing, while balancing the budget and making sure everything’s accounted for has been a role for women. That siloing of duties, she says, could play into a situation where one partner accuses the other of gaslighting.

“In my meetings with clients, I sometimes see instances where one partner questions the other’s ability to deal with the family's finances,” adds the Principal and founder of Julie Shipley-Strickland Wealth & Risk Management. “I don’t think it gets to the level of gaslighting, but there are situations where the woman really defers to the man to fill in gaps in her memory.”  

Simple miscalculations and financial disorganization can also set off false alarms. According to McCullough, a teacher who makes $100,000 a year might conclude, after some quick-and-dirty division, that they have about $10,000 of spending money a month. But the reality is that after deducting income tax and contributions to pension and benefit plans they may be part of, their take-home pay may actually be closer to $5,800 to $6,200 a month, leaving a huge opening for misunderstandings down the road.

“Eighty per cent of my work in a year is talking to people about how much money came in, how much money went out, and where did it go?” McCullough says. “It’s easy to blame the other person or say ‘maybe they could change instead of me.’

“I think when we misuse the word ‘gaslighting,’ it becomes problematic for people it’s actually happening to because their situation gets downplayed,” she says. “For people who think they’re being gaslit when they’re actually not, it prevents them from solving their actual problem.”