Love and Debt in a Nearly-Dissolved Marriage

by Steph Auteri

My husband should have known what he was getting into.

When we first met, he was working as a copywriter at an apparel company, and had already been there for several years. I, meanwhile, had recently been let go from my first post-college job, was collecting unemployment checks, and was picking up cash here and there by writing nightlife reviews and handing out samples at various supermarkets and Dunkin’ Donuts locations.

While not exactly making big bucks, Michael was the picture of stability. I, on the other hand, was all over the place, scrounging money where I could and trying to get my foot in the door of the publishing industry with a post-college editorial internship.

Even after I landed a full-time job with an academic book publisher, my pay was pathetic in comparison to Michael’s. This despite the fast-track promotions I received. It didn’t help that I was a shopaholic, and that even with a steady income, I lived paycheck to paycheck.

Still, as a possible sign of masochism, or maybe just questionable judgment, Michael asked me to marry him. And eventually, I came to feel what it was like to live in the shadow of my husband’s significantly larger paycheck.

The imbalance didn’t bother me at first. In fact, I considered it a bonus as I prepared to take a calculated risk with my career. Looking to do more of my own writing, I took continuing education courses, built up a stable of freelance clients, worked a permalance nighttime gig on top of my 9-to-5, and, after discussing it with Michael, decided to make the leap into full-time freelancedom. I leapt with the understanding that Michael would be there to catch me if necessary.

Michael, for his part, wasn’t held back by his need to support me if things went south. At my urging, he left his job of seven and a half years to pursue his dream career as a web developer for a startup.

The both of us did well for ourselves. He experienced an immediate bump in his salary, and I managed to quickly match the income I’d been receiving from my previous employer. Then the bottom fell out of the economy and things got dicey.

For me.

Trying to keep up with my bills, and reluctant to ask for help, I felt blindsided when I realized I was $10,000 in debt. But what really ate away at me was the fact that this wasn’t the first time. It was the fourth.

My family had bailed me out the first two times. Michael had absorbed my debt the third time. This time, I was overwhelmed with guilt by the thought that I might be jeopardizing our future together as husband and wife; as eventual homeowners; as eventual parents.

I brought it up halfway through dinner at Triumph Brewery in Princeton. “I have to tell you something,” I said after sucking down a good portion of my coffee stout.

“Oh god,” he said. He leaned back on his stool, folded his arms across his chest, prepared for the worst.

“My debt has built up again,” I said, staring into my beer as if it held the answers to life, the universe, and my shopping problem.

“How much?” he asked, immediately.

When I told him, he rested his head in the palm of his hand, giving all indications that he might at that very moment be developing an ulcer. I spoke again, before he could get too far lost in fatalistic reverie.

“I don’t want your help,” I told him, pulling out my wallet. “Except for this. I want you to keep all of my credit cards and, from now on, I’m going to use cash for everything.” I slipped both my credit and debit cards out of my wallet and slid them across the table.

Then I laid out my master plan. In addition to giving up my cards, I would also start tracking my spending on Moreover, I would consolidate my debt onto one 0%-interest card. And then, I would throw a huge chunk of money at my debt every single month.

Eventually, I managed to pay off all of my credit card debt — for once, all by my lonesome. Still, things were never the same. Michael no longer trusted me, and he felt increased pressure to define his success by the size of his paycheck. When money management came up, he derided my upbringing, pointing out that I had never had to suffer the consequences of my mistakes.

He had a point.

While Michael had been working steadily since high school, my parents forbade me from getting a job until college because they wanted me to focus on bolstering my college transcript with good grades and extracurriculars. When Michael borrowed money from his parents, his father charged him interest. When I got into money trouble, my mother bailed me out.

And just as I had relied on my parents while growing up, I had begun to lean on Michael more and more. Because I felt I could rely on him, even when I faltered, I never felt desperate enough to go back to a traditional job. This created a dangerous dynamic in our marriage.

Because even though I brought many things to our relationship (a great aesthetic sensibility when it came to home decor; home cooked meals; various creative talents; general lovability), these things didn’t come with financial compensation. And if they didn’t come with a large paycheck, did my contributions and personal successes even count?

These constant feelings of guilt and worthlessness eventually made me feel as if I couldn’t vocalize any of the frustrations I felt in regard to our relationship. “I’m supporting us,” he would say when I expressed a desire for him to work less overtime. “Just think of how I feel,” he would say when I wrung my hands with worry over where my next paycheck was coming from. “I have to pay all the bills.”

And thus did he effectively deny the validity of my feelings.

I don’t know that this is the place to discuss the near-dissolution of our marriage, and how this poisonous dynamic around finances contributed to that. Especially when there were other things at play. Things that had nothing to do with money.

I’ll just say that it’s something we had to work through and, after clawing our way back from that, our marriage became stronger than ever. Since then, things have seemed to fall into place for us like dominos.

After trying unsuccessfully for years to sell our one-bedroom condo (thanks to a significant drop in its value), we instead secured a renter and purchased a four-bedroom house.

At around the same time, Michael got a stable job with a well-established media company, where his employers require far less overtime and allow him to work from home once a week.
And I finally found my own rhythm, bouncing back from my lowest income year ever by landing a choice permalance writing and editing gig. I also became certified as a vinyasa yoga instructor, and have been building a yoga business that’s actually thriving. Because of these regular sources of income, I no longer have to hustle for work. And thanks to the strong network I’ve built up over the years, I still have additional projects that come to me unbidden anyway. I’m now making more than I ever have, and I’m only working part-time hours.

Which is a good thing because, after three and a half years of trying, we now have a four-month-old daughter. I act as her primary caregiver as I work from home.

As idyllic as things seem, however, it doesn’t mean the dynamic in our relationship has changed. Michael is still the breadwinner. And I’m still wondering how to define my own worth within the context of our relationship.

But I’m in a better place now. A place where I don’t feel my heart clawing its way up my throat every time I get a new bill in the mail.

I don’t know where my value lies. But at least I feel secure.

Steph Auteri is a freelance writer and editor who often collaborates with sexuality professionals on books, blog posts, and other forms of content. She has also been published in Playgirl, Time Out New York, New York Press, and other publications. You can learn more about her at her professional site, or stalk her on Twitter.

Photo: Matthew G.

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