About a year ago, APW published an advice column letter that stopped me in my tracks. The subtitle said it all: “He makes 4X what I do, and he never lets me forget it.”
My husband and I had a similar income split at the time. I’d spent the first few years of our relationship terrified that we would slip into a power dynamic like the one described in the letter. That case seemed pretty clear-cut. But it got me thinking about less-extreme examples.
For women who date men, the patriarchy sets up all sorts of traps and traumas couched in the language of love. In a society where money equals power, and where women routinely earn a fraction of the income men do, it’s easy to start thinking that he who brings more money into a household, has more say; she who earns less, has less.
So much relationship advice on the internet is couched in terms of “red flags,” or danger signs. But it’s not often that we talk about the inverse: the “green flags” that signal a truly healthy relationship dynamic. From the very beginning, my husband and I have managed to mostly avoid the money-power trap, and to build a relationship on equal footing despite very disparate earnings. Here’s how that story has unfolded for us.
GOOD SIGNS FROM THE BEGINNING
On our first date, we ate a free lunch at his work cafeteria. On our second date, we split the bill for sushi. Third date was a picnic-style spread at his apartment: cold cuts, bread, cheese, root beer.
We were both newly minted college grads. But it was already obvious that our financial situations were different. He was a software engineer at a major tech company, renting a two-bedroom apartment all by himself; I was living with my parents and stringing together part-time gigs. Though we’d grown up in similar cocoons of financial privilege, I could tell that he was already far outearning me.
We started spending more time together. And as he slowly revealed more and more of himself to me, every single thing I learned was positive. When it came to the financial divide between us, not once did I feel off-balance or at a disadvantage. Here are a few of the ways he put me at ease:
- He took all of his cues from me. I am stubbornly independent, and it was hugely important to me to pay my way as much as possible. If I wasn’t comfortable with him paying for something, he didn’t—even if it meant both of us settling for a less-expensive option when he could have easily afforded something fancier.
- He was excited to share. When I did let him treat me to something, he viewed it as an opportunity to have fun together, rather than a favor he was doing me. If he chose a more expensive option than I could have afforded on my own, like a nicer hotel room on a trip, he was excited that I got to benefit from it.
- He was frugal but not miserly. When he bought his first car, about a year into our relationship, my father expressed surprise that a young moneyed techie would choose a Prius rather than a sports car. My husband shrugged; “It was more practical,” he said, and left it at that.
- He never questioned my decisions. Around two years in, he floated the idea of moving in together. I said I wasn’t ready, and he didn’t breathe a word about it again until I brought it up years later. In the meantime, when I rented a quirky garage-turned-studio-apartment, where ants and slugs marched across the kitchen floor on cold winter nights, he shrugged and helped me lay down traps.
COMMITMENT, MARRIAGE, AND MONEY
Years passed. Our relationship deepened. He rose through the ranks at work; I worked full time in public relations, then transitioned to freelance. We moved in together. We bought a condo, with 95 percent of the money coming from him. We got married, with our wedding paid for almost entirely out of his savings.
As we’ve become financially intertwined, those green flags I saw earlier in our relationship have continued to fly. They are the reason that, last summer—for the first time in my adult life—I took a leap of faith and walked away from a steady income stream, without another one lined up.
Today, my husband’s tech-industry income keeps our household afloat. I am building a new career as a writer and editor—a notoriously low-paying endeavor if ever there was one (and especially so for women). Short of my becoming the next J.K. Rowling, my husband will almost certainly outearn me for the duration of our marriage. Here are a few of the reasons I’m comfortable with that:
- He is committed to our shared financial future. After we joined finances, he was very clear that the money in our joint bank account was ours, not mine or yours. If I started talking about spending “his” money, even in jest, he would jump in and correct me.
- He takes my career aspirations incredibly seriously. As a woman in a creative field, I find myself instinctively downplaying my ambitions, talking about my writing as if it were a glorified hobby. My spouse disagrees. He talks up my skills and accomplishments given half a chance, and gladly invests our shared money in writing classes and conferences to hone my craft and build my network.
- He does not know or care what I do with my personal money. We each kept our pre-marriage bank accounts for personal use, and we draw an “allowance” from our joint account each month. He does not ask (or, frankly, care) how I spend this personal money—it is mine to do with as I wish, even though it technically comes from his salary.
- He is willing to talk about this endlessly. Even when things feel seamless and stable, we check in routinely about our priorities and concerns, including finances. We talk through everything from monthly spending breakdowns to his yearly compensation letters. And he makes clear that I am a full and equal partner in all household money matters.
None of us is immune to the cultural air we breathe. Keeping our relationship healthy and egalitarian requires constant vigilance, and a lot of humility. But my husband has showed me from day one that he’s up to the task. It’s why I was willing to commit to him, and he rewards that choice every day.