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How Income Disparity Impacts Romantic Relationships

Income disparity reveals insecurities and threatens progressive gender norms. Six women explain.

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Few things disturb an otherwise healthy relationship like money problems. Sometimes, the problem is simply “one of us has more of it.” Income disparity — when one party in the couple meaningfully out-earns the other — can bring out the worst in us. It reveals our insecurities and calls into question the extent to which we have truly escaped outdated gender roles.

What happens when an educated, working woman is nonetheless “kept” by a wealthy guy? What about when a high-earning mother grows bored of her stay-at-home-husband’s conversation?

To find out, I interviewed six heterosexual women in their twenties and thirties.

I Want My Husband to Go Back to Work, 29

“It’s unfeminist, but I don’t respect him sometimes.”

I should say right off the bat that my husband is a wonderful person, and I have no doubt in my mind that I made the right choice to marry him and to have a child with him. He’s kind, thoughtful, funny, brilliant, and incredibly warm. I feel “home” when I’m with him like no one else, and as someone who has parents that are more than a little cold/distant toward each other, it’s huge to be able to say that about him.

All that said, we have a very significant gap in income, because I make over six figures (consultant in strategy), and he makes nothing, as a stay-at-home dad (SAHD). When the time came for us to figure out child care, I was already making about three times as much as he was as a music teacher. It was obvious to both of us that instead of derailing my booming career or paying essentially his salary straight to a full-time nanny, he would stay home while our son was a baby/toddler, and pursue his master’s at the same time, mostly in evening classes.

For the first six months, it really felt like a dream situation. I was able to continue with the career I loved without having to slow down, and I knew that my son was at home with his father. I loved coming home and seeing him studying, or making dinner, or getting ready for class. Frankly, sometimes I even found it sexy to have him taking on this profoundly domestic role. It reminded me of everything my parents never were.

But it’s now been nearly three years, and honestly, I don’t know if he’s going to go back to work. He’s started blogging, and while I support everything he does, I don’t know if it’s going to make any money. His master’s is done, but he isn’t doing anything tangible with it, and it’s only a matter of time before our son is away at school most of the day. He promises he’s going to find a new job, but he seems content with his life as it is, and I’ve begun to nag him, which is my worst nightmare. For now, in the interest of not fighting, I’ve accepted the sole breadwinner role.

This means that not only are all financial decisions on my shoulders, but also any future we hope to have as a family is going to be my responsibility. He doesn’t abuse my money, and he is responsible in every way he can be, but it’s still sometimes like having two kids instead of a co-pilot for the family. I’ve started to have anxiety attacks about all of the pressure, even though I know that he’s taking a huge pressure off my shoulders by raising our son so well every day.

I don’t know how to articulate what I want. On the one hand, I love his effort and attention to our son, and I love that he has taken on our domestic life with such energy. But on the other hand, I feel like my professional life is eclipsing him, and my horizons are broadening while his are narrowing. It doesn’t feel very good to not be able to talk about anything “adult” at the end of the day, or to share my professional dreams with him. I do sometimes feel that I don’t respect him, despite that being very unfeminist. I can’t help feeling that it would be the same if the roles were reversed. It’s not about gender — it’s about how limited your world becomes.

My Boyfriend Struck It Rich, 25

“I try to push down the resentment.”

When my boyfriend and I met through a mutual friend, his consulting business was small. It's been only in the time I've known him that the business really exploded. A lot. He hired employees and bought an office in a high-rise downtown. He talks to me a lot about having to run payroll and pay taxes and the financial toll it takes on the business, and it's always hard for me to sympathize with his first-world, rich-man problems.

Whenever he's doing something that involves lots of money — like when he bought a new Cadillac or when he went to Brooks Brothers to buy expensive dress shirts — he invites me along and I always get mad and feel bad and mentally stomp around. He's Mr. Rich Guy asking my opinion on things I couldn't feasibly afford. Which Cadillac should you buy? Any of them. They're all nice.

The result is that I try to keep up with him, relatively speaking. Every few dinners he buys, I'll pick up one too. He buys three dress shirts, I surprise him with an extra one. He wants $300 cologne but won't splurge and buy it for himself? Fine, here. I'm actually out a lot of money, too.

Totaling everything up (rent, groceries, entertainment, etc.), he spends about 30% of his monthly income. I spend about 24 percent of my monthly income on rent alone. There's a huge disparity that only gets larger because I try to "hold my own" when it comes to financing things (and still put into savings, etc.).

We're not planning on getting married anytime soon so we're very much the "you are you... and I am I" types. And I try to push down the resentment of earning less because, honestly, we're pretty happy together. I knew him before he became "Frank Underwood, POTUS." All of the feelings I feel ARE trivial. They ARE first world. And I try not to let them drive a wedge between us.

My Husband Needs To Get His GED, 31

“We trust very few people with the details.”

My husband of eight years is an immigrant with a green card who works as a freelancer in the auto-body business and earns $40,000 less than I do. Just seeing that number in writing makes me feel insane.

We have a plan to turn his work situation around (the first step is getting his GED, because you can't work ANYWHERE it seems without one of those...not even the supermarket), but for now, we mostly depend on my income to pay our bills.

I've come to the point where I try not to talk about the pressure I feel, because I don't want to make him feel like I blame him for our situation or that I don't appreciate what he does try to do. But it's honestly very hard to pay for most of our expenses and have no safety net should something go awry.

There are very few people who we trust with knowing the details of how we're doing financially, and we are both adamant about not asking for help unless the situation is dire (I can count on one hand how many times we've asked our friends for help). I try to keep my family as in the dark as possible, because I don't want them to think any less of him than they may already. I make it a point to never appear to be struggling.

While we're not dogmatic at all about gender roles, I do feel at times that my husband feels like less of a man because he isn't doing his fair share financially at the moment. I try to make him feel like his contributions toward our expenses matter, no matter how small they are.

I also try to make sure he doesn't feel ashamed to tell me about the things he may need to buy for himself. This is a guy who will walk around in the dead of winter with a hole in the bottom of his shoe rather than tell me he needs new ones.

I don't think we'll ever be equals as far as income is concerned, and I'm OK with that. Whether he's able to find a regular 9-to-5, or if he keeps his auto-body business and has a side hustle working at a supermarket, it's fine with me. Our ultimate goal is for us to be able to truly split the cost of our expenses, so that I can throw more money at my student loans. Maybe then we can have more "fun" purchases, and take more vacations every once in awhile.

My Boyfriend Is Oblivious to His Privilege, 26

“His family thinks he rescued me.”

My boyfriend and I met while we were both at the same college (a little one in the Northeast that isn’t an Ivy but is still very good, populated by a lot of rich, liberal students of rich, less liberal parents). I was the token scholarship girl, but even with my sizable academic scholarships and grants, I was still taking about $10,000 per year out in loans including cost of living and everything else. My parents aren’t poor-poor, but they’re both teachers and I’m one of three children, so there was only so much they could help me.

I met Dan my junior year, when he transferred from another school. (I would later find out that he was in danger of failing at his Ivy, so he claimed a mental health issue, took incompletes, and transferred. His parents more or less orchestrated it.) Even though I knew he was rich off the bat — he had a BMW on campus and was always wearing things like Sperrys and cashmere — it didn’t feel like a problem. To my mind, “he” wasn’t rich, "his family" was, and I still think that was kind of true at the time.

Cut to graduation, and he miraculously (lol) lands a high-paying job at one of his father’s friend’s companies, while I was working an entry-level position at a media company making barely $30,000 a year. I felt lucky to get a job in my field, but it was my first moment of, “Oh shit, life is different for people with rich families.”

To Dan’s credit, he never judged my background, he’s always been very kind to my family, and he does his best not to make me feel bad about not having as much as him. Now, nearly three years out of college, he out-earns me by nearly $100,000 a year, and it’s gotten…uncomfortable in some ways.

His parents are not society people, so I don’t think they had an expectation that he would marry some socialite, but they always remind me of what I get to do because of them. My first trip to Europe was with them, my first Christmas in the Caribbean was with them (apparently this is a thing rich people do), and their gifts for me at holidays are always totally excessive, and not something I can reciprocate. When we moved in together last year, his mother took me home goods shopping and several times reminded me that she was getting everything to help us out. She meant help me out.

I’ve obsessively googled his parents to figure out their net worth, and have started portraying a different persona when I spend time with them, because I want to be the person they think their son deserves. I know that they like me, but I also know that if I didn’t have a “good” job (even if it doesn’t earn a lot), they would be much less interested in me. I can tell that they don’t ask me questions out of curiosity, but rather expectation. There is a right and wrong answer to everything with them, and I believe this stems from thinking they rescued me from something.

Dan is the love of my life, but sometimes I feel worried at the idea of having a child with him, because I don’t know how I would be able to shield a child from these mentalities. Dan seems mostly oblivious to all this because it’s how he was raised, and he doesn’t perceive his parents’ comments or presumptions. But I definitely do, and it makes it all the more worrisome that I’m alone in feeling this class tension.

I Stopped Trying to Keep Up With Him, 25

“My insecurity slowly faded.”

We met online, so I wasn't much aware of his financial situation for a little bit. He told me that he was an engineer after our first few dates, so I reasonably assumed that he made more than me, a media saleswoman). Within about two months of dating, I had to move back to my parents’ house and struggled to make ends meet.

He had no idea how bad my financial situation was because I tried VERY hard to keep up with him. He still paid for the majority of our dates, but every fourth date or so, I would pay. About three months later, I quit my job (100% commission in TV advertising in Tulsa, Oklahoma, pays about 3 beans an hour). This is when we had "the talk." He revealed to me exactly how much money he made, what was in his bank account, how much he had in loans, and what his financial plan was. It was a great talk, but it made me feel bad. Here he was, with a financial plan, and I was unemployed.

When I found a full-time, salaried job (that I was really excited about!), I still made SIGNIFICANTLY less than him. I still felt like dead weight. The stress came in the obvious ways, like wanting to take him out on a nice date or pay for dinner or get him a nice birthday present. But it also came in those nagging, gnawing ways, thinking that I wasn't as valuable of a member in our relationship because he made more.

All relationships start off immature and vulnerable, and I think that the income gap definitely fuels the fire. As the relationship grew and we both matured, our senses of value shifted. Financially speaking, I can’t make huge extra payments to my student loans or make investments, and he can. But I am very used to day-to-day bargain hunting. He is good at making long-term financial goals, and I am much better with smaller goals, like figuring out where we can find a good deal for dinner, how to grocery shop efficiently, or how to make a weekly budget.

We're Long Distance; He Pays for My Visits, 25

“I feel like I have to lie.”

My S.O. and I have always had a gap, money-wise. I had to fund my way through undergrad and I was living away from home, while he was able to stay home while his parents happily/were able to pay for everything (except for what he wanted to spend for fun) and set him up with investments when he was younger so that he had savings when he was responsible enough to handle them. We've been dating for several years, most of which has been long distance, and the money difference has not been an issue until he started to make a good income in his career, while I'm still incurring debt because I went back to school.

He's in the STEM field in Canada right out of undergrad, so he is doing very well for himself. For a year after my undergrad, I lived back with my parents and I worked an underpaid job. Then, I decided that the best way for me to transition to a new field and earn more is to do grad school full-time. I couldn't find a job that was flexible enough for my school schedule, and so the only way I was able to fund my graduate school lifestyle was to use some savings and incur more student loans.

Anyway, my S.O. has been great throughout this whole thing. I don't ever ask him for money, because I don't think that's right or fair, but when it comes to funding things that are beneficial for both of us, such as flights to see each other or paying for things when we're together, he's usually the person who takes out his credit card.

Although his money makes it easier to be in a long-distance relationship, it still comes with a lot of baggage. It causes a lot of stress for me because I can't do what I want since it's still his money. For example, even if I am dying to see him because it's been four months since we last saw each other, I don't feel like I can be honest about what I need because it means that he would have to open up his wallet and find a way to get me from one part of Canada to another. And let me tell you, these Canadian flights are expensive.

Also, I would need to know about these visits well in advance so that I can budget to scrimp and save some extra money during the preceding months so that I can treat him to a couple of things. These few treats and contributing to some gas while I'm visiting is something that actually pains me to pay for, but I feel like it's the least that I can do. I also feel like I do not have the luxury to buy myself fun things, like nail polish or a new dress for the summer, because it should be going toward the relationship fund. What's worse is that I feel like I have to lie sometimes about my purchases because I can't tell him I bought something when he just paid for a flight.