Q: I grew up in a very dysfunctional home. With an alcoholic father and an abusive bipolar stepmother, it was made abundantly clear to me and my siblings that we were a huge burden, both financially and emotionally, on our parents. We learned pretty early on not to ask for or need anything. Whatever it was—new sneakers, a ride to school, braces, a hug—it was always met with anger and resentment, and left you feeling humiliated and guilty for even asking. It took me a long time and even some therapy to understand that having needs and wants didn’t make me an ungrateful or bad person. I moved out when I was sixteen years old and since that time, the only person I’ve relied on to take care of me was myself. I worked my way through the remainder of high school and put myself through college waiting tables, babysitting, working as a chambermaid, whatever I needed to do to. I didn’t have a lot, but what I had was all mine and that was the best feeling in the world. I never had to feel guilty for needing something again. After I graduated college, I found a career working as a manager and handling marketing for salons. I knew it would never be a high-paying, high-powered career, and I was okay with that because I loved the work, and I’d NEVER had a lot of money anyway, so why would I need it now? My bills were paid on time, I had a roof over my head, and I even had extra money to go out on the weekends. Beyond that, I didn’t need much more.
Enter my fiancé. His upbringing couldn’t have been more different from mine. His family is a tight-knit, hilarious, loving Norman Rockwell painting come to life. I feel so honored that he chose me to become a part of them. He works incredibly hard and does very well financially. He is an incredibly kind and generous man, and wants nothing more in the world than to provide for and take care of me, to share his success.
Here’s where I struggle. I love this man so very much and I know he loves me. But I still feel this extreme fear and guilt when it comes to accepting the things in our life that his money provides. I feel guilty because I know without him I wouldn’t be able to live in the adorable house he bought for us, I wouldn’t be able to eat at the kind of restaurants we do without him, I wouldn’t be able to drive the car we have, or go on the trips we do. And I am petrified that one day he’ll see me as a burden to him, something I swore I’d never let myself be to anyone again.
I’ve talked to him about the way I feel, and of course he does the best he can to reassure me that this is all unfounded and untrue. He says I contribute to our life together in ways that aren’t measured in money, by making our house into a home and by taking care of his heart. He’s a really practical guy, so in his mind, he already considers me his wife and is already committed to the idea of providing for his family. We’re pretty traditional in our ideas for raising a family so we’ve always planned on me eventually being at home with our children. To him, there isn’t really a difference between when that happens and now. So why, why is this so hard for me, why does it cause me such anxiety, and why am I so afraid that if I allow him to take care of me, it will backfire and hurt me in the end? Logically I feel like a complete jerk for even feeling the way I do. I mean seriously! Other women probably hear me gushing about this amazing man who bought me a house and wants to spoil me rotten and they most likely want to punch me in the face or tell me to shut up.
I’m wondering if anyone else out there struggled with this and how they tackled dealing with it? Any advice would be helpful. I don’t want to spoil this special time in our lives being so consumed by anxiety and fear. I want to truly enjoy what I have instead of being so afraid of losing it.
A: Dear Casey,
I’m so sorry, Casey. You ask, “Why is this so hard for me?” and girl, it’s because people treated you terribly. It’s not your fault for feeling this way. You were dealt an awful hand by those who should’ve done better, and that’s out of your control. We all (all of us!) carry baggage from our childhoods, from our parents, from our past relationships. All of us were shaped by things that having nothing to do with our current situation or current partner. And many of us also have a teeny bit of fear that if I do X, it’ll make Y happen, because that’s how it went down last time. Don’t be hard on yourself.
But we’re talking about a couple different things that I want to parse out.
First, let’s talk about the money. You’re both speaking in terms of “providing” and “taking care” when this money comes up. And sure, as partners, it’s important you take care of one another. But bringing home a paycheck is not how your partner takes care of you; it’s how he contributes to the shared economy of homelife. Yeah, it’s just a little semantic thing, but it’s got some big implications. Maybe if we change those terms around and start talking about this as his “contribution” versus your “contribution” you can stop feeling weird about it. Because being “provided for” would make me feel weird, too! Instead, I have a husband who makes a certain paycheck as a part of his contribution, and then I do a bunch of other stuff as my contribution (monetary and non-monetary), and all of it—the money, the meals, the sparkling bathroom (ha), and the up-to-date vaccination schedule for the kids—all of it is shared, all of it is equally ours.
So your partner is right! You’re both contributing. Even if he’s making the big bucks, it’s likely that you’re pulling weight in other areas. But his well-intentioned arguments about enjoying “taking care of you” ultimately miss the point. Chat about how you guys perceive these paychecks and how you can talk about them differently, as something belonging to both of you not because of his kindness and generosity, but because we all contribute to the family in different ways.
All of that means: his money is not taking care of you; you’re not a burden. This is just what it looks like when married people have joint finances. But that doesn’t mean you get to gloss over these fears of depending on someone. So much of marriage is about interdependence. About being able to be vulnerable with someone and to rely on them, about communicating things you need and counting on them to respond generously. You mention that you’ve been in therapy on your own, which is great! Now is an excellent time to pop back in for a refresher and start some discussions about what healthy dependence looks like.
So your homework is: 1. Talk about the ways you refer to this money and each of your individual contributions. 2. Meet with a professional to work out what actually taking care of one another will look like. Focus on making this money about something other than “providing for you” like some sort of kept woman, and figure out how to truly rely on someone for things you need (because you will have needs!).
But there’s also a third step. Make sure you aren’t powerless. Do you have access to the money, or is it all in his name? Are you able to grab something when you need it, or do you have to ask for an allowance? Do you have any safety nets available to you, or are these “taking care of” terms just the surface of some unequal power dynamics with this money? This isn’t about rehashing your old fears of abandonment. This is about relying on someone because you want to, not because you need to.
And on that note, I have one final soul searching question—DO you want to? You mention that all the women hearing your story are probably furious with jealousy, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Like I mentioned above, having a man “provide for me” while I sit at home eating bonbons and steaming my vag (or eventually caring for potential kids, or whatever) doesn’t sound like my ideal, and I’m sure other women would agree. So, is it your ideal? Apart from the emotional baggage of being afraid of someone else paying the bills, do you even want someone else paying the bills? If not, that’s fine, too.
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