When One Person Earns More Than the Other in a Relationship

by Bryce Emley

My fiancée is an RN in the ICU unit of a government hospital in the Southwest. She’s not always happy in her work, but she makes three times what I do, making it far easier for us to travel often, drive a brand new Outback, be grocery snobs, feed our dog the top-shelf stuff, etc. She does genuinely like it (as far as jobs go), but admits that she can’t see herself being an RN for the rest of her life, anticipating how the long days and the stress inherent to being responsible for people’s lives and wellbeing while dealing with their emotionally charged families will wear down on her both physically and emotionally over time.

I sympathize, but can’t empathize.

When I get invited to a concert two hours away on a Thursday night, I work double-time Monday through Wednesday and take Thursday off. When it’s college football season and I feel like working in front of a TV all day, I do that. When our friends want to camp in the Zuni mountains in the middle of the week, I cut my workday at 3 and get back to work the next morning at 11.

If you’re not getting the picture yet, I can basically do whatever the hell I want because of I work as a freelancer; my fiancée, however, cannot. Don’t get me wrong — she has way more freedom with her schedule than most people do. But here’s what our daily work lives break down to: She runs around a hospital all day; I bounce on a yoga ball then play with the dog. She’s sometimes too busy to eat for 13 hours straight; I eat a Clif bar because I walked by the cupboard and realized I felt like eating something. She starts IVs for people with liver failure; I once got a little drunk at 2 p.m. while ghostwriting for a self-help expert. She preserves human lives; I’ve been paid to write erotica.

Things are not even in most respects, and I get that.

A lot of people say they don’t care about money — being happy is the really important thing.

When I majored in creative writing in college, I knew what I was getting myself into: not knowing what I was getting myself into. I had this one thing I liked doing that had some place in academia and (maybe) the career world, this one thing I enjoyed that colleges would let me study. It wasn’t necessarily that I wanted to be a novelist, an editor, or a future Poet Laureate; writing was just what I was good at. If I figured anything at all about what would come next, I figured it would sort itself out as long as I kept working hard at what I did.

After graduating I did the whole office job thing, then the substitute teaching thing, then half the subbing and half the freelance thing. My sister told me about oDesk, Elance, and fiverr, and as I made a name for myself on those sites I was gradually able to wean myself off of standard employment until summer vacation hit and all I made was whatever I could convince people to pay me to write their blogs and marketing copy. And I loved it.

Again, a lot of people say they don’t care about money. But best case scenario after two years of full-time freelancing: I still make something around what’s considered the poverty line and now qualify for Medicaid. And I’m happy because that’s enough — for me. But when you’re in a relationship, it’s not that simple.

When we moved in together, my fiancée said she wanted things to be equal. I told her equal meant contributing the same proportionate amount to what we earn since I make a third of her income, which seemed fair in theory, and on paper it is.

Before I continue to make myself sound like a jackass, I should note that our relationship dynamic has had benefits for my fiancée as well. Since I can work from anywhere, I was able to pack up and move 2,000 miles across the country to follow her to her job in an interstate town with no thriving industries. Since I set my own schedule, I get to keep up with her erratic schedule and travel with her whenever she/we feel like it (which is often).

My schedule also allows me to essentially be a homemaker — doing the “invisible work” of unpaid housework: I clean, cook, do the dishes, fix shit, run errands, organize our bills, raise our hellion of a puppy, grocery shop, and do all the other stuff most people can’t/don’t want to do after working for 12 hours. For the most part, my fiancée’s responsibilities are to go to work, and then relax when she gets home. This is the least I can do to make up for my meager contributing power.

And it works — again, on paper.

The problem with things that work on paper is that relationships aren’t made of paper. There’s no row in my pro/con spreadsheet for emotional stability, no oval in a Venn diagram for fulfillment, no figure in a cost-benefit analysis for jealousy.

While people like my fiancée squash some of their hobbies and interests with responsible career paths (she really wanted to study art history), I’ve become your run-of-the-mill, freedom-spoiled, creative-idealist twenty-something. I scoff at the nine-to-five lifestyle, turn my nose up at guaranteed salary and health benefits, eschew the responsibility of being stuck working under a dictatorial boss. Even the idea of returning to the definite daily schedule of substitute teaching makes my pulse quicken with anxiety now. And subs don’t even have to go to work if they don’t want to.

The problem I have with traditional employment is twofold: First, as I mentioned, I’ve become spoiled by my freelancer freedom; second, this is the only way I know how to make a living doing the one goddamn thing on this good Earth I’m good enough at to make a business doing.

People get jobs they hate all the time just to pay the bills; and in some situations, that’s all you can do, and that’s understandable. I think this is why lots of people get jobs waiting tables, or bagging groceries, selling used cars, and even teaching: They can do it, it pays money, and it sucks less than other options. Maybe it does or doesn’t incorporate any other aspects of their lives, personalities, or passions, but people need to pay for their cars, cable, internet, student loans, clothes, kids, and dining habits.

But I don’t have a car or kids, I get anxious about having too many clothes, and had scholarships in college. From an expense standpoint, I live like an introverted college student with no tuition. I make household necessities out of old cardboard. I freeze the extra tikka masala from leftover Indian food to use for dinner. I hoard extra napkins from restaurants. My point is, I live a lifestyle my meager income can afford me, so I can work for a better reason than to “pay the bills.”

We spend around a third of our waking life working at our jobs. I don’t think it’s acceptable to spend all that time doing something we hate, doing something we go to bed every night in heart-wrenching trepidation of waking up to do, doing something anyone else in the world could do that has no application to our own lives (have you seenSteve Roggenbuck?).

I can’t settle for allowing 40 hours of my every week to be some black hole of time I don’t want to remember, that I can’t build on over the next week’s 40 hours of work toward something better and more significant. I think this progress, this drafting toward something more is what gives us as humans a necessary sense of purpose; to thwart it with a weekly race for the weekend that starts over again and again Sisyphusianly is to starve some deep, innate emotional need that we end up wasting ourselves away trying to nourish in other ways.

I enjoy what I do every day. I wake up borderline excited to do it. For me, writing for a living is akin to being a professional athlete or musician: I get paid to play and improve. Like every other freelance writer out there, I’ve got my own stuff locked away in the back of my mind I work on at night, and freelancing allows me to iron out the technical aspects of writing, and allows me to keep my mind sharp and my creativity flowing. Plus, my schedule frees me to spend as much time on my own writing as I want, which I know from my days tweaking line-breaks during half-hour lunch breaks is a rarity in the traditional job world.

But to say all this to my fiancée would be to denigrate what she does. The days she comes home in tears after engaging with real, troubled, hurting people, all I have to say for my day is I may or may not have helped someone sell some high-quality German shoe horns. And when she allows that inevitable and understandable resentment to boil to the surface of our relationship, who am I to say it’s irrational? What good will it do to reassure her that even though I was at home in my sweatpants drinking coffee all day, I took out the trash, installed a lock for our bathroom door, and started building a fruit basket to hold our bananas?

We’ve had lots of talks about my future — more than about our future, maybe. I can sense and understand the disappointment when she asks me about what I’ll do after studying creative writing in grad school (if I get in) and I say I don’t know, that there’s too much competition for professorships to expect a job in academia. I’m paid to thrive on subtext, so I can read between the lines when she asks me how long I can picture myself freelancing. She doesn’t say that I don’t make enough, but it’s hard not to wonder when she mentions how her bills are going to take up an entire paycheck this month and I say I’ll be lucky to deposit a few hundred into my savings.

As long as I’m not allowing myself to settle, to sacrifice what makes me happy to meet her in the middle, to understand what it is to be unhappy sometimes for the sake of a greater happiness, there will always be this distance between us, one we’re still figuring out and navigating together, at least.

Bryce is a freelance writer based in New Mexico. When the mood strikes him, he blogs about modern advertising atadvert ventures.

Photo: Johan Larrson