Personal finance blogger Eilene Zimmerman had a post recently that really intrigued me: How Money Can Hurt Your Marriage.
Eilene hits right on the head a thing that has always played, subconsciously, into my own relationship dynamics: the way finances become a power tool.
Eilene’s then-partner significantly out-earned her. "One of the biggest problems in our marriage was his demanding job (that paid well) and that the power in our relationship was – at least from my vantage point – all economic," she writes. "I felt like I had no right to ask for anything I wanted – not material things, but more like time away from the kids, time to work, time to go out with friends, essentially time – because he was working so hard. And although money is empowering in many, many ways, it made me feel powerless, because I didn’t have much of my own. My income was tiny compared to The Husband’s, so how could I declare I would be taking a nap on Saturday afternoon?"
Ding ding. That’s a thought process I suspect is common to a lot of women. Maybe it’s prevalent with anyone, of either gender, in an income-imbalanced relationship, but my impression is that women are more susceptible to it. Including me — on both sides of the equation.
Money matters because the most important thing it buys is flexibility. Greater financial resources means greater control over where you live, what you do, how you allocate your time, and a vast swathe of other variables that shape our lives.
But it’s easy to let money become something else: a way of keeping score. Beyond the ubiquitous cultural programming that tells us money works meritocratically, with more flowing to those who work harder/better/smarter/longer than others, it’s just easy. It’s why people are drawn to sports. The results are black-and-white, simple to compare, to rank.
And the kicker is that it’s very easy to say "money doesn’t work like that; incomes aren’t neatly correlated to effort," but like most things in life, this is a gray area. Sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t.
In college I made $7 an hour working the popcorn machine at a local movie theatre; now I make much more money doing a job I think is way easier and more fun. I don’t work "harder" now than your typical retail worker. And, of course, I make a tiny sliver of what your average Wall Street financial type pulls down; you can guess how much "harder" I think their job actually is. (I’m not talking about skills and qualifications; I’m simply talking about the strain and labor involved in getting through a typical day of work.)
But then, there’s cases where income does reflect effort. One of my friends works about 70 hours a week, on two jobs; her less-employable (and, honestly, lazier) partner works half as many hours.
This is where the gray sneaks in. There’s a ton of factors — some controllable, many not — that affect income. And when you have two people in a relationship with financially intertwined lives, the only way to avoid tension is for both to be in synch about how money, especially when it’s imbalanced, should affect everything else. Time, chores, goals, priorities, everything.
David and I had our own wrangles with this last year. In the middle of an epically bad market, he quit the job he’d held for almost a decade. With nothing new lined up.
While I understood and agreed with his reasons, I was still not what you would call 100% cool and supportive about the move. ("Shrill" and "cranky" would probably be better adjectives to describe some of my comments about it.) Yes, we could scrape by with just my income, but did I really want to? I started expecting David to do a hell of a lot around the house, because part of me wanted him to "prove" he was doing as much work as I was. I was bringing in a paycheck, my little brain-voice said; what tangible thing was he doing? I was definitely using money to keep score, even as the rational part of my mind knew that wasn’t really fair.
(Caveat: This equation becomes a very different thing when you add in kids, illness, dependent relatives, or other complications beyond a relationship of two fully functioning, equally competent adults — which is, of course, the situation most married couples face at some point in their lives. That’s a whole other column.)
Then David got a new job, with a salary slightly smaller than his old one. That left our incomes even more out-of-whack than they’d been before.
But that gap doesn’t faze me at all. We both work full-time, office-type jobs; mine just happens to be in a field that pays better than his does. He loves his new job and it’s a great fit for him. Since my income is higher, I cover more of our expenses, but it seems to me that it would be ridiculous to expect him to do more than I do around the house to "pay off" the salary differential.
So … sometimes I keep score with money, and sometimes I don’t. And though there are times when it’s clearly, actively destructive — most times, I’d guess — it also feels like a thing humans will inevitably lapse into doing.
How do you sort it out?