How Do I Tell My Partner He Needs to Make More Money?

I think I just need more from him now

man and woman sitting together

Q: After five years of dating, four years living together, and three years being pet-parents, my partner and I finally decided to get married!

I love this man more than words can express. This sounds cheesy but he makes the mundane stuff so fun, we share the same values about life, and he adores me. But our road so far hasn’t been easy. He’s in a creative field with very few jobs and fierce competition, and hasn’t had a single full-time job since we met, whereas I’m in a much less exciting field, but with a steady income and benefits. He’s a really hard worker and an early-riser, often times combines teaching jobs with commissioned work and other forms of hustle, but money is always super tight somehow. When he has any, it seems to disappear instantly into more creative projects that aren’t generating income. Saving for retirement or a house has never even been a consideration.

Our way to deal with this has been to live very frugally and split our living costs in half (basically rent, car and groceries), while I cover most of the extra stuff for both of us like eating out or traveling or house repairs. I don’t mind living under my means at all; in fact I think it’s really healthy to need less and consume less. I’ve also never had a problem making more money than a boyfriend. But the constant hustle that I found exciting at first is giving me some anxiety now that I really, really want to have a kid. Two years ago, he decided that the best way for him to achieve some job security would be to get a masters degree. It was a tough decision that pushed back our baby-making plans two more years and would put us into even more financial stress, but as a guy in his thirties, it seemed like a now-or-never kind of thing, and I gave him my unconditional support.

As these two years are coming to an end, I can honestly say they have been the hardest in my life—in a brand new city where I have zero friends, working a job that’s draining my soul to support the both of us, and barely seeing him because his program is so demanding. And as the end of his degree is approaching, I was hoping for some clarity, but it seems like our future is hazier than ever. We need to decide where to live and what kind of work we’re both going to do. He really wants to launch a business together, but it could require years to take off, and we need health insurance and some minimum stability to have a baby. Now I’m wondering if we should postpone the wedding until we’re really certain we can build a functional life together and he proves to me that he will step up and take a job, any job, when we have a kid. I would consider being the provider if he took on the childcare, but that is extremely unlikely to happen. He can’t stand being cooped up in the house for a day, much less for months on end with an infant.

I am estranged from my family, and he is essentially all I’ve got. His family is my family, and I really, really want to see “us” work. I just have that nasty little voice in my head popping up sometimes saying, “You’ve been together five years and this guy has never been able to provide. What makes you think he will be able to now?” Or, “If he really loved you, he’d be less selfish about his career and put our family plans first,” or “Is it reasonable to marry someone with massive student debt and no proven record to make any money to pay it off?” I’m getting to an age where I can’t keep waiting to see if things develop in the right direction. More than anything, I want to build a family with someone and can’t imagine it being anyone else than him, but I also want a partner I can rely on.

How can I discuss these things without seeming accusatory? A lot of resentment has built up over these last two years of supporting his dreams, and I don’t want to go into marriage bitter.

—Anonymous

A: Dear Anonymous,

I’ll take a leap and assume your partner doesn’t know that you’re feeling this way—bitter, resentful, unsure. But does he know the rest? Does he know that you hope this situation will someday swap, that he’ll have the lucrative job and pay the bills? And while we’re asking some questions, is this arrangement (you paying the bills, him chasing dreams) something you agreed to, or something he just eased himself into and took for granted?

I know you fully supported his decision to go back to school, and that’s awesome. You signed up for it, you agreed to it, and it’s finally starting to wear on you (completely understandable). But the rest of that stuff—the creative field that forces him to wait around for an opening, the extra cash he’s throwing into side projects. Did you agree to all of that? Or did you expect you’d both share the weight of financial responsibility, both invest together in your relationship, and instead he’s just traipsing around, assuming that you’ll pick up his slack? Because man that’d be deserving of some bitter resentment.

Career decisions are joint decisions. When you’re in a relationship, these things make a huge impact on your partner. They determine where you live, how you live, and how much time and money you have at your disposal. You need to be a part of the decision-making process. And that goes double or triple for starting a business. If that’s his plan, it’s only doable if you’re completely on board. A small business will assuredly take over your life for a stretch, and as you point out, probably won’t offer much in return for a little while.

So, have you talked about it? Are you both involved in the decisions about his career path? Did you know that the end goal of this extra degree would be entrepreneurship? Does he know that you want children, that you hope that he’ll get a steady job with a fat paycheck, that you’d like to stop being the financially responsible one in the relationship? Or, has he always known that his career wouldn’t be lucrative, that it would be emotionally but not financially fulfilling one (in which case, this guy is not your breadwinner, now or ever)? If these chats haven’t happened, get on it.

I see three possibilities here. The first is that maybe this stretch of you-as-breadwinner was supposed to be short, he expected to find a job, he expected to make this career lucrative and it just hasn’t yet. Or, two, he knew this career path wasn’t going to make him rich, but he chose it anyway, works hard, and finds it emotionally fulfilling; he’s not motivated by money. Or, three, he’s sort of a slacker, he’s not motivated by money, but he’s also not motivated by anything—like needing to pay rent or watching you slave away. To figure out which one of these is going on, I would need to know how much you’ve talked about this and what’s been said (and I don’t).

Lots of us have been in this exact place. So many of us carry the burden of responsible adulthood while partners go for their Master’s (me) or finish law school (Meg) or go to nursing school (Stephanie) or start a small business (also me), even moving across the country to follow a partner’s career (Meg again). Carrying that weight for each other can be a really important part of marriage. If you think about it, that means that we can accomplish more as a team than we can on our own. Because you took care of the worries about rent and bills, your partner was able to wholly focus on his education. That’s kind of awesome!

But you’re writing because it’s worn thin, and that’s fair. If we’re going to do this for our partners, shouldering the extra burdens, making sacrifices, it has to be done with some boundaries. You get a say in what’s happening, and you’re allowed to cry “uncle!” when it’s too much. It’s only fair to request a time limit or an end goal, and if that end goal isn’t met within the time limit, you’re allowed to ask for a plan b. You’re allowed to expect that what you want is also considered.

That last part is the important part here. This kind of shouldering burdens requires mutuality. You’ve gotta be able to take your turn if needed, to know that what you want is also being weighed as an important factor. So, is it? Or, does this one irritating situation demonstrate a clash in priorities and personalities? Is he maybe the kind of guy who isn’t motivated to earn the rent, is kind of lazy about taking care of himself? Worse still, is he just the kind of guy who is content to sit back while you do all the work? If this is a narrow situation—he’s just focusing on this offbeat career, he’s just pouring himself into his education—you can get through that with some therapy and some conversation. But, if this is just one example in a trend, it might be a bigger problem.

Either way, I said it—therapy. Feeling resentful after all of this time is only normal, but man, it’s not a great idea to keep it bottled. Plus some conversations with a professional, objective third party can help you address all of these unknowns about the future and figure out if you’re dealing with a one-time stint, or a guy with a bad habit of dropping the ball and expecting you to catch it.

IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO ASK APW A QUESTIONPLEASE DON’T BE SHY! IF YOU WOULD PREFER NOT TO BE NAMED, ANONYMOUS QUESTIONS ARE ALSO ACCEPTED. (THOUGH IT REALLY MAKES OUR DAY WHEN YOU COME UP WITH A CLEVER SIGN-OFF!)

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