What Financial Obligations Do We Have To Our Romantic Partners?

Love is grand, until money gets in the way

The One I Love

I’ve read or listened to so many fascinatingly complicated stories lately about the fraught intersection of finance and relationships that raise the question of what we owe in terms of $ to the people we profess to ❤.

There’s this recent Dear Sugar podcast, for example, called “Powerful Women And The Men Who Love Them,” all about the earning imbalances — which quickly become power imbalances — within couples.

Powerful Women And The Men Who Love Them

One woman laments that though she’s successful and well-paid, she’s lost patience with — and attraction to — her once-successful and well-paid husband. When he switched professions, he asked her to support him for a little while; now that she’s been the breadwinner for five years, though, she’s moved beyond frustration to a kind of anti-zen state. Her mood could perhaps be best described as fiercely boiling mud. (Where’s that emoji?)

There’s also the question from a Carolyn Hax chat from a woman who was offered a better-paying job that would have made her miserable.

Carolyn Hax Live: ‘A’ suck hole of all joy and fun, not ‘THE’ suck hole of all joy and fun (Feb. 26)

After much soul searching and discussion with my husband, I turned it down. He is now livid. So seething angry months later that we still can’t have a civil discussion about it. There are lots of under the breath comments and bitter sarcastic remarks about me choosing my personal happiness over something that would have helped our family unit. We’re not destitute, bills are being paid, but we’re not keeping pace with our friends right now. Every time a bill comes in the mail or we have an invite to dinner he gets mad all over again. I’m starting to feel resentful that he’s so willing to trade my happiness for a few extra bucks, but I also feel guilty. Any thoughts on how we move past this?

Carolyn’s answer is to haul the husband’s ass to counseling, if he’ll go, because his behavior is breathtakingly inappropriate. Like, as inappropriate as taking a small child or a sensitive grandparent to The Revenant or, apparently, letting them watch a televised Republican debate.

I think it’s clear from both these Q&As that people are muddled over the question of what we owe, financially, to the people we’re involved with emotionally. Here’s my take. We owe it to our partners to contribute to the family unit: materially, emotionally, in terms of chores. We agree, when we couple up, to prioritize the needs and happiness of both parties, rather than merely our own. But love does not and should not require negating oneself to please the other. Any partner that expects you to sacrifice yourself on the altar of The Relationship — especially to the elusive and finicky God of Lucre — is the wrong partner.

Marriage vows say nothing of one spouse’s obligation to martyr him- or herself by taking on 40+ hours a week of intolerable work, or continuing to do so as part of the pretense of being a traditionally driven Alpha Male, because the other is mad that “we’re not keeping pace with our friends.”

Even if the husband, in the Carolyn Hax case, is entitled to disappointment at being denied a chance to live a more lavish life, he is not entitled to sulk and be spiteful for months with impunity. If he wants more money for the family, he can go earn it himself. Likewise, the wife in the Dear Sugar question can feel free to be as resentful as she wants at having gender roles flipped on her. She’s had to support her husband for longer than she wanted to, and she’s tired of it. Fine! She should be open with him about her disappointment that their lives together haven’t turned out the way she expected and how that’s affected her libido.

But none of us gets a guarantee going into a relationship that the person we choose will remain static. Indeed, if anything, the guarantee goes the other way: the person we love will change. They will gain or lose weight, get or lose jobs, take up organized religion or give up Communism. All we can ask, long-term, is, “Do you promise to have my back, no matter what?” And all we can pledge is, “I do.”

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