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Coming to Terms With an Unequal Success Dynamic in a Relationship

The concept of success—what it means, who has achieved it, and whether or not it matters—has been a very common theme over the course of our ten-year relationship. Greg and I met in high school, where I was the over-achieving honors student, and he… wasn’t. Still, we had the same group of friends, and a few of the same classes, and considered each other very much equals. Immediately upon graduation, that all changed. I was accepted to and went off to a well-respected university located several hours from our hometown in Southern California. Greg, despite sending out dozens of applications in a frantic attempt to get out of his parents’ home, did not, and started taking classes at the local community college. Though we spoke every day, and I came home to visit at every opportunity, he slid further and further into a hopeless depression at the thought of having been left behind. It left me feeling ashamed of my success, guilty for leaving, and desperate to help. After one semester, he was accepted to a small private school on the other side of the country. After two months of separation, I left my well-respected university to fly to the frozen wasteland of Ithaca, New York to be with him, and enroll at said small private school.

In Ithaca, we were equals again, taking classes in the college’s relatively well-known communications program, where we both excelled. Unfortunately, I could not afford to stay the full four years, and since I had amassed quite a bit of AP credit, I graduated early. This was December of 2008—the stock market was in free fall, companies were laying people off by the hundreds, and it was generally a terrible time to finish school. With nowhere else to go, I moved back in with my parents while Greg finished up his last semester.

After that, I wasn’t employed, but I wasn’t idle. I threw out several last-minute graduate school applications, and was accepted to one. It was in Orlando, Florida—another world away. When Greg graduated, he also had nowhere else to go, and no job prospects to speak of. But this time, I wouldn’t just leave him behind in our hometown. I asked him to come to Florida with me.

It was not a good choice for either of us. Once again, I was the successful one—going somewhere, and doing something with my life. Greg found a part-time, minimum-wage job at Disney World, in which he faced the daily humiliation of leaving and returning to an apartment filled with business students while dressed in something that resembled a clown costume. Again, he became depressed. But this time, I didn’t feel guilty at my own success. I felt angry at him for bringing me down. And after a year of increasingly toxic feelings towards each other, mixed with a few unfortunate choices on my part, he left.

I came back to California after graduation, still without job prospects, to find him also unemployed, living on a mattress in his parents’ dining room. Sad as it was, we were equals again. It was a low point for both of us, and something that made us both face our reasons for ever having wanted to be together, and our greatly diminished plans for the future. It was during this time that we got engaged.

We both found jobs within a few months of each other. However, mine was relatively well paying, full time, and with the faint glimmer of a career around it. His was a part-time paid internship. We moved in with some friends, started paying what rent we could, and made the best of it. But the skewed power dynamic in our relationship reared up again. I didn’t much notice or care—we were both working, and we were both doing what we could. I saw us as a team. But Greg saw himself as dead weight in a relationship where, as the man, he felt he should be contributing more. He had left college with crippling student debt, and the bills were now largely being paid by me. As was the rent. As were the groceries. As was the majority of our entertainment. This time, I finally recognized it for what it was.

And here’s the thing that we have been grappling with over the course of our engagement: What is it to be a team? Does it matter that I make more money? (No.) Does it matter that his path has been a little rockier along the way? (No.) Is the “success” ratio in our relationship likely to remain constant over time? (No.) Is one individual’s value in a relationship measured by more than the size of the paycheck they bring home, or the future prospects they have at that precise moment? (Absolutely, unquestioningly, yes!)

So now our wedding is less than two months away. Greg has found a full-time job. He still makes less than I do, a fact that he is still acutely aware of, but we are trying to emphasize the more important parts of our relationship. We are facing this marriage as equals, because no matter how society measures success, all that really matters is that we’re both there to support each other, whenever and however it’s needed.

Photo by: Emily Takes Photos

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