And it's wreaking havoc on relationships everywhere.

By Juli Fraga, Psy.D
May 06, 2021 @ 3:26 pm
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The Revenge-Shopping Pandemic and What it Means for Your Relationships
Credit: Erin Glover/Instyle.com/Getty Images

A friend recently sent me a photo of her shiny, new Chanel handbag. The price tag: $5,000. Like any good friend, I was pumped for her. But as a mental health expert, that quickly turned to concern. "Look at my revenge purchase! Here's how I'm getting back at Paul" she texted (though I've changed his name here). Her behavior is something psychologists like me call "revenge shopping" or "revenge spending".

If you search for #revengeshopping on Instagram, you'll see hundreds of photos of people flaunting fancy clothes, high-end electronics, designer handbags, and shoes. But these aren't just any splurge: As the pandemic winds down, many people are 'revenge shopping' as a pick-me-up to celebrate their vaxxed status or a reward for the long, hard year they've endured. For others, though, it is a passive-aggressive expression of anger, sadness, or frustration against a partner. So, while 'revenge shopping' sounds fun and feisty — like the infamous 'revenge dress' — it's more in line with the 'revenge body': aka problematic behavior that's ultimately only hurting yourself (and in this case someone you care about too).

"After fighting with my husband, I spent hundreds of dollars on redecorating the house, even though we couldn't afford it," says Amanda Webster, 36, health coach and mental health YouTuber. After another pandemic-induced blowout, Webster purchased new clothes and bought a fancy dinner with her husband's debit card. "I was shopping to make myself feel better," she admits. "And as a way to get back at my partner." 

When shopping is done in secret, it's called "financial infidelity," and research suggests approximately 41% of Americans conceal their spending habits from their partners. Financial infidelity often manifests as "revenge spending," which happens when you make a hasty, secretive purchase after a quarrel with your partner. Similar to emotional eating or drinking, it's often a misguided attempt to avoid conflict, escape reality, and numb pain. And even though buying a fancy handbag or shopping on Instagram might feel good in the moment, shopping to avoid thorny relationship woes tends to make problems worse in the long run. 

Megan McCoy, Ph.D., a certified financial therapist and professor at Kansas State University tells InStyle she's seen an uptick in revenge spending during the pandemic. "COVID has not been great for couples, and some people buy things to cope with their brewing frustration," she explains. 

The financial therapist tells InStyle that revenge spenders may secretly spend their own money, dip into joint funds, or use their partner's credit card. But the amount or source of the money isn't really the issue but rather the dishonesty, which can rattle trust and wreak havoc on a relationship. Unsurprisingly, "the behavior is often a sign of an unaddressed relationship concern," McCoy explains. Revenge spenders may shop because they have trouble speaking up for themselves or because it's too hard to confront painful emotions. In some cases, "revenge spending may also be a way to punish your partner," says Fran Walfish, Psy.D., a family and relationship psychotherapist in Beverly Hills. 

Shopping out of spite isn't a new issue for Webster, but her spending really ramped up during quarantine when arguments with her husband crescendoed. "After a fight, I tend to see the world in black-and-white. Everything seems awful," she shares. Revenge spending becomes an underhanded way to express resentment, "It's my way of telling my partner, 'I bought this because you didn't support me.'"

Webster has learned from therapy that clicking the "Buy Now" button after a heated argument stems from her history with trauma and addiction. "As someone in recovery, shopping is less harmful than using cocaine or alcohol, and our culture normalizes and praises the behavior, which validates over-spending," she says. 

"Impulsive and compulsive shopping has a lot of overlap with addiction, as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder," McCoy agrees. Shopping becomes a way to relieve emotional pain and anxiety, but when the "feel good" dopamine wears off, panic and regret rush in. "Afterwards, I feel guilty for spending money for the wrong reasons," Webster shares. But at the moment, "shopping is a way to surround myself with things I can control and hold onto." 

Eugenié George, 34, also secretly spends when she feels out of control. "Whenever someone tells me I can't do something, it's a major trigger," George tells InStyle. During the pandemic, while planning her wedding, George wanted to spend $350 on yoga teacher training. "My partner said I didn't need it and we got into an argument," she says. "I ended up dipping into my 'WTF fund' and purchased it anyway." 

How Couples Can Bounce Back from Revenge Spending 

The first step is to identify the scope of the problem. Are you endangering your family by overspending, using money that isn't 'yours' — or simply not telling the whole truth about your retail habits? "Even if you have plenty of money, revenge spending is often a sign that something in the relationship needs repair," McCoy says. 

Resolving conflict requires better communication and the ability to tolerate that your partner has values, needs, and opinions that differ from your own, says Walfish. But when problems heat up, couples tend to rehash the past and blame each other for their issues. To interrupt the cycle, "take a pause and start with an 'I' statement," Walfish advises. With her therapy clients, McCoy stresses the importance of addressing gnarly emotions like resentment, shame, and sadness, "talking about feelings makes it less likely that you'll act out and revenge spend." 

After several money spats, Webster and her husband started seeing a couples therapist, but she also realized she needed to enlist healthier coping mechanisms and prioritize self-care, whether it's rollerblading or writing in her journal. "When I'm using my coping skills, I'm not nearly as triggered to shop under stress." 

She's also made it harder for herself to spend money impulsively. "I don't save my credit card number in my Amazon account anymore, and I put a note on my debit card that says, 'wait an hour,'" she shares. These interventions are psychological tricks that can make spending more painful, McCoy says.

To undo destructive spending patterns, teaming up on a financial goal can be a game changer. "Tangible goals give couples something to work towards, which requires ''buy in" from both parties, McCoy shares. For example, couples can set up a joint account and save for a house, special trip, or new car. "Talking about money breaks the taboo, which can turn conversations in a positive direction." 

George has taken strides to rein in her spending and is actually studying to become a financial counselor (and, yes, she did complete that yoga training). "After reviewing our budget, my partner and I decided to postpone our wedding," she discloses. But she says the postponement comes with a silver lining. "It's giving us time to combine our goals and work together as a couple."