In the beginning, debt was just a number. What was important was we were in love. It was us against the world. I happily took on responsibility for the financial mess she had gotten herself into prior to us meeting, knowing that although we might struggle with the loan I got for a few years, at least that would see her debts wiped clean and our future would be debt free. After all, she promised she’d never get into that financial state again. Why wouldn’t I believe her?
Then came mortgage, children, the weight of responsibility. The kind of responsibility that was amplified by never being more than a paycheck away from homelessness. Every penny counted, and I was prompted for the first time to become ambitious. As the sole earner in the household, if I didn’t progress my career, I would be a failure as a husband and father. And that? That was unthinkable. That was all I had.
Within four years I tripled my salary. Today I make six times what I made when I first moved here. Yet still it’s not enough. It will never be enough. I realise that now.
The first betrayal – or, rather, the first that I was aware of – came in 2008. I had sent her to stay with her sister for a week because she was beyond exhausted looking after two young children. I took the week off work to look after the kids.
I wasn’t normally home for the mail being delivered, so it was sheer serendipity that I discovered this particular letter. A red letter. Not the sexy kind, the kind that comes with a stamp in angry bold letters: FINAL WARNING.
It wasn’t addressed to me but I opened it anyway. My hands shook. Repayments missed. Being referred to bailiffs for collection of the debt. And she hadn’t said a fucking word to me about it.
I confronted her, and there were tears and apologies and excuses. Never mind, I said. It’s done, let’s focus on fixing it. Let’s get it paid off together. So I gave her the money to pay it off, and she promised it would never happen again.
That was strike two, I said. There can’t be a strike three, I said.
Fast forward a few years. Financially we’re doing better. We have a huge amount of debt but thankfully I also have a good salary, and I’m slowly paying the debts off. I’m starting to feel like I can see a light at the end of the tunnel.
One day, she asks me to get something out of her purse. When I’m getting it, I see something else. A credit card. A credit card I didn’t know about. Again I confront her. This time she is not apologetic. She says she just needs some money of her own and she hates having to rely on me for it. I get angry about this, because although I’m the sole breadwinner, I have always transferred her a generous chunk of my salary every month to cover everything she needs for her and the kids, and then some. I have never been controlling about how she spends that money. Never asked to see receipts, or for her to tell me how she accounts for the money. I tell her this one is on her. I’m not giving her extra to pay it off like I’ve done before. She needs to take responsibility. She acknowledges and accepts this; she doesn’t really have a choice.
That was strike three, a few years ago. Yet for all my bluster I stick with her. Hearing more promises to never do it again. Urging, imploring, begging her to recognise that we can’t keep up this trend of taking on more and more debt because although I’ve managed to continually get pay rises to coincide with supporting the increasing levels of debt, those increases are going to plateau, and soon. This time I really think she hears me. We’re a team, working towards a debt free future.
This week though. This week I am being forced to acknowledge that this pattern of behaviour won’t ever change. This week I found out that the credit card she told me was almost paid off is actually a stone’s throw away from its limit. Not only that, she has obtained four figures of credit from PayPal. To top it off, she has a store account for a website where she has accumulated four figures of debt. And that’s just the things I can confirm.
I really thought we were swimming towards the surface here. That it wouldn’t be long until I could breathe properly again. Instead I find myself being pulled ever deeper. This feels like I’m wearing an anchor and it’s just going to keep dragging me deeper as long as it’s attached to me.
What can I do except cut it loose?