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When it comes to credit and relationships, what you don't know can hurt you -- and cost you big bucks. Not understanding how credit works can be especially risky for women. Although credit is blind to gender, some situations may affect women more than men.

Women are more likely than men to give up an individual income in favor of becoming a stay-at-home parent or caregiver. Since they often earn less in the workplace than men do, women are disproportionally affected financially by divorce. And because women live longer, they are more likely than men to have to deal with the death of a spouse.

All of which makes it critical that women be cognizant of credit so that they can keep their financial lives on track. Here are six things about credit that women need to know.

Do spouses have a joint credit report?

Many people erroneously believe that when they merge lives with a spouse, they merge credit files, too. However, that's not true.

Your credit history is yours and yours alone, says Barry Paperno, the consumer affairs manager at myFICO.

Whether you're married, divorced or widowed, your credit report contains only your accounts. That could include any joint accounts or obligations on which you're a co-signer or authorized user, but your credit history contains only accounts that have your name attached.

If you and your spouse or partner apply for something together, such as an apartment or home mortgage, your partner's credit history will be a factor, but your credit reports will not actually combine. Rather, both credit histories will be considered. With a mortgage, the worse history can have the bigger impact.

Why women shouldn't depend on joint credit

With joint credit or authorized-user designations, it's possible for a woman to have a credit history and a great credit score without ever having credit in her own name.

However, it's not a great idea. After a divorce, joint accounts may be closed. If a spouse dies, card issuers frequently cancel or curtail the survivor's joint accounts based on the new circumstances, says John Ulzheimer, the president of consumer education for Smart Credit. "The bank still wants your business, but they may not want it under the same conditions that you were enjoying before," says Ulzheimer.

The result: At an already stressful time, a woman who depends on joint credit may have little or none. A divorce or spouse's death is no time to discover that -- along with everything else -- you also have to re-establish credit, he says.

Having individual accounts gives you "more control over your credit history and score," says Jill Gianola, a certified financial planner and the author of "The Young Couple's Guide to Growing Rich Together."

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