Feelings, why you be so confusing?

i've been losing sleep dreaming about the things that we could be

Have you ever had to rethink something quite fundamental in your relationship? Had emotions/opinions you didn’t know you had start to reveal themselves?

Let me try and put some of these thoughts into a vaguely coherent order.

We’ve had joint finances to one degree or another for years. I’m not gonna lie; when I was benefiting from that arrangement – me studying and T working full time – it was great. He clocked a lot of hours and earned a good wage. I didn’t give it a second thought, though I was aware in the back of my mind that I’d be in a slightly tight spot if we broke up.

NOT that I would want to return to that state of affairs by any means, but right now the situation is reversed and it has been for a long time. While I’ve progressed steadily, he’s basically been treading water – particularly accounting for inflation. Highlights: A job that was meant to lead to apprenticeship and qualification, and even better money, evaporated in the GFC. Another job promised advancement and promotion but failed to deliver, so he quit outright when we went travelling. Upon our return, two jobs turned toxic and fizzed out suddenly. (The first of those could have seen him pulling in six figures…)

For the first time in awhile, there is no longer the shimmer of a high(er) income around the corner. The current state of affairs is not totally settled, so I won’t go into any detail, but it is not lucrative, nor is it likely to be. I’m cool with that – right now I just want consistency over everything else.

While I do consider all money ‘ours’, that hasn’t sat all that well with me lately, as I’ve had to support us both through months and months of unemployment – for the better part of a year, in fact. Over time I became quietly, seethingly resentful, and that’s an uncomfortable feeling to have.

We are a team. We’re married. I am well aware of this. As a work buddy wisely pointed out, the pendulum swings back and forwards at different times. Her relationship balance is about to swing as she stares down the barrel of maternity leave, and leaning on her fiance for financial support.

I’d always expected T to eventually return to outearning me, but the way things have panned out, it looks like I’m going to continue to be the main earner forever. Which is fine, since I’m also the more career-driven one. But I can’t honestly say this sits completely well with me either, and that’s a feeling I’m struggling to come to grips with.

One astute commenter on this fantastic post at A Practical Wedding, On Marrying Down, really nails this dilemma. I can’t put it any more succinctly than this:

I’m also the more career-oriented partner and I’ve struggled with the idea of “marrying down” in some ways. It’s hard for me not to judge my husband according to those social standards of how men are “supposed” to think about work. But the truth is that if he was as ambitious as I am it would probably produce a lot of strain navigating it. I just don’t know how to let go of my preconceptions about what I should want as a woman and make space for both of us to just be who we are.

It’s not like I grew up in a household that fell strictly along gender lines; as far as I know,  my mum has been the main earner for years, at least recently. Also, while I (consciously and unconsciously) chose a partner who is the opposite of my dad in every way, another weird way I’ve wound up emulating my parents is that our financial roles seem to be the same – the wife being the go-to money person. (The one difference is my dad spends nothing while T definitely like stuff.)

On the other hand, out in the working world I seem to be surrounded by women with higher earning partners – and in the spirit of full disclosure, the bitter half of me silently snarks ‘that must be nice’.

I guess I have a strongly ingrained sense of fairness geared towards total equality that runs deeper than I thought.

Here’s a silly yet telling anecdote. Our house always had a well stocked biscuit tin. When I was about 9 years old, it came to my attention that my little brother had been eating more biscuits than me. I started keeping count, my eagle eye trained on him and that cupboard. Let me tell you, he absolutely ripped through them. He got up into the  double digits within a few days. At that point, I complained to my mother, who told me to drop it and get over it. Sulkily, I complied – but that always stuck in my craw.

Well, in the words of Coldplay… Nobody said it was easy. Heck, even Farnoosh Torabi (author of When She Makes More) has said she’d love for her husband to be the breadwinner. It’s something I’ll have to work through and process this year, as the trauma of the past year hopefully fades.

More reading on this topic:

I make six figures, my boyfriend is a poet (Reddit)

How income disparity affects our relationship  (LearnVest)

The weaker sex (The Atlantic)

When love crosses class lines (The Billfold)

Will our class differences tear us apart? (The Awl)

16 thoughts on “Feelings, why you be so confusing?

  • Reply save. spend. splurge. April 29, 2015 at 11:55

    Exactly why I am 50/50 in my relationship… although it kind of begs the question why women expect men to earn more, even independent women like ourselves. I’d feel the same way.. and I did. That’s why I’m 50/50 now.

  • Reply That Blue House April 29, 2015 at 12:05

    I know this feeling well, and the only thing that kept me from getting downright cold and nasty (which I fully admit, I was at times) was knowing that I wouldn’t be the breadwinner forever. As much as a feminist as I am, it is still hard for me to let go of the notion that I can out earn my husband. I feel it’s because I still had to do more household work than my husband, although not recently, and he has actually been in charge of a lot of house projects.
    The only way I can see myself being less resentful of being the breadwinner is if my partner picked up more of the household tasks, like grocery shopping, laundry, cleaning, etc. Still, it’s a hard road to navigate… let me know if you ever want to vent

  • Reply Taylor Lee @ Engineer Cents April 29, 2015 at 13:42

    As someone who earns 5x what my BF makes, I get where you’re coming from here. For me it’s less the fact that I earn more than he does (we both knew that would be the case going into the relationship and 100% okay with it) and more that I don’t want to feel like I have to take care of him, especially if he is not yet in turn taking care of our kids or something making our contribution to the relationship equitable, if that makes sense?

  • Reply SP April 29, 2015 at 14:24

    I was in the “earning more now, but eventually will be equal/out-earned” category for quite some time as my husband did the phd/post-doc academic route. I think it was easier (as you pointed out) with the knowledge that it was temporary and part of an over arching path.

    I would feel the same way, which is weird and hard to get over. On an intellectual level, it should absolutely be OK for a man to “specialize” in home stuff while the woman brings home most of the money. The people I see doing that are great examples, but there are SO FEW that it is hard to normalize it in my mind. To be fair, I give the side-eye to women who don’t pull their weight financially too. This is not intentional / correct. It is FINE for people to do what works, but my gut reaction is that both should be equals/high achievers. Even though that really doesn’t make practical sense. So, there’s that.

  • Reply G April 29, 2015 at 20:15

    What about the other aspects of your relationship? Who does the housework, grocers, cooking, house or car maintenance, home financial organisation? Who does the emotional work in the relationship? Are you carrying the load in all of these areas?

    I earn a lot more than my husband, but we share housework, cooking and childcare – and he is fantastic in all those areas. I do more in some areas, he does more in others – but we are a team.

    I also feel fortunate that both my husband and I took time off to look after each of our 2 kids – I had 6 months off, then he had 6 months off. I was bored at home, but am really grateful that the kids didn’t have to go to day care until they were a year old. I would not have coped with a whole year off. I dont get jealous of women with high earning husbands – its the husbands with stay at home wives that I envy! Men dont know how lucky they are to have wives willing to carry that load

  • Reply L April 30, 2015 at 01:15

    I get what you’re feeling.
    I think it’s when the one who earns less or us unemployed doesn’t pull their weight at home that it’s a problem.

  • Reply Amber April 30, 2015 at 06:25

    Eric going to school for 4 years really had to make me accept being a higher wage earner. He has been done school for 7 months but is actually currently on a 4-6 week break from work with no pay due to the work not being there right now. Oh the life of working in the trades. It’s definitely a hard mindset to wrap your head around but you married them for better or worse and that’s what happens! My biggest takeaway? I’m so grateful to have someone I love so much be in my daily life. To me, having someone to travel with, have fun with and come home to after work is more important than anything else. Does that mean I don’t feel bitter sometimes? Not at all, I totally do! But I’ve been working on changing my mindset every time that bitter side of me sneaks in and it’s helped a bit…

  • Reply JC April 30, 2015 at 09:04

    I know the feeling. I’ve had to go through the same thing with my husband on three separate occassions. It’s very hard being the breadwinner and can be extremely frustrating. I admit that I broke down at one stage and we had a heart to heart about it.

    After the third time we decided to save a 6-8 month emergency fund in case we were in the same situation again. We’ve had to keep living on one wage during this time, but the safety net is worth it. It gives me the piece of mind that I need and has helped our relationship.

  • Reply Tamz April 30, 2015 at 09:30

    I’m in a similar boat. The bf and I are not married, we are cohabiting and in a committed relationship and have talked about marriage. Both him and I have good jobs, I out earn him but that doesn’t bother me as much as the fact that I am much better with money than him – he’s not intentionally frivolous but it’s obvious that he grew up in a wealthy household where the cost of things wasn’t as much of a consideration as it usually was for my parents. We’ve got one joint account for joint expenses, everything else (savings, other funds) are separate – even with this limited amount of sharing, I do get resentful sometimes with the amount of money that seem to go towards wasteful things from that joint account. Ironically this mirrors his parents’ relationship – his father is more frugal than his money and was the sole income earner for a while, and his father has told him in confidence that he knew if he wasn’t married to his wife, his financial situation would’ve looked a lot more positive than they do now, but he also recognizes that it is a source of contention for his relationship and he loves his wife so he shuts up about money to avoid fights. By any reasonable saving standards, my bf’s parents should be wealthy and retired now but they are not because of some of their wasteful lifestyle. That’s my fear. I love my bf but I don’t want to marry a financial “liability” and have a man derail me/us from my dream of becoming financial independent. I love my bf, but this issue has always been in the back of my mind so I understand what you’re going through.

  • Reply Michelle April 30, 2015 at 11:42

    This is a difficult situation because we have been educated as women to anticipate that our spouse would/should make more than we do. That is changing quite quickly in this day and age. I would bring up something different which is this: how to navigate helping T regain his “footing” again. I can only imagine what this situation has done to his self-esteem. I’ve known people that have had long bouts of unemployment or underemployment and it has a very profound affect on how they feel about themselves. Sending good vibes.

  • Reply The Asian Pear May 1, 2015 at 09:03

    I don’t have any advice as I’ve never personally had this situation but I do sympathize. My best friend is in a relationship where she out earns her husband. At first, it was difficult for her as well. It also was an internal battle because she seems herself as a feminist but she had the upbringing that he should be out earning her. In the end, she reached a point that she realized that as long as the relationship was fair, she’d be happy enough. This meant her husband had to put more into the relationship domestically so at least that part of stress is gone.

  • Reply Jayson @ Monster Piggy Bank May 1, 2015 at 10:29

    In perspective of men, I think it is really fine to share 50/50 just to be fair and to have no questions asked. Also, in the relationship, balance and fairness are keys. And, knowing responsibilities of each gender just makes us content with relationship and function as couple.

  • Reply middle class May 2, 2015 at 06:36

    This is definitely a hard topic and one I keep coming across on various blogs by very independent women. It’s like we worked for 50/50 equality but didn’t think what would happen if the split was 70/30. Men have supported wives for ages and they are not resentful, so I feel like I shouldn’t be either. At the same time, household chores, kids, and planning often fall on the wife even if both work. I have no answers but I think “all in one pot” works better for me and my husband. At the end of the day, we will both need to access the money for retirement and it’s not like I’m going to say, well I put more $ in so I can have the surgery and you can’t.

  • Reply Linda May 3, 2015 at 03:25

    It sounds like there may be a couple things to think through here. First, your experience is even more evidence that the phenomenon of family units only being able to meet/maintain the traditional middle-class lifestyle when both spouses work is global, and not just a US problem. You see your colleagues with higher earning spouses on this trajectory towards what you’ve been dreaming of — homeownership — and it makes you feel envy and perhaps resentful. That T isn’t “pulling his weight” by remaining employed, much less earning even close to what you do can lead to some of those feelings turning on him.

    Second, you may want to ask yourself if there is anything going on besides this one issue in the relationship. As others have pointed out, when we’re with a loving partner who is helping meet at least some of our physical needs (and by that I mean cooking, laundry, errands, and other life chores…as well as other things) and meeting our emotional needs, then we can overlook a lot.

    As you know, I had to make this decision not long ago and decided to end the relationship. The “relationship ledger” just didn’t have nearly enough in the “assets” column when all the deficiencies were accounted for. (I know that sounds cold, but it’s the most succinct way I can put it.)

    I’m not suggesting you break off with T at all, just look inwards and see if you need to ask him for something else that will help you feel better during times like this. Maybe it’s that he take over something like grocery shopping, laundry, the social calendar, etc. and then give you a nice foot rub once a week, or something like that. Maybe you need him to give you more hugs and cuddles and kisses. You were able to travel the world as a couple and get through a lot of situations. You can get through this, too.

    And if it’s any help you can also try turning those negative feelings right back at the people at work who annoy you with their comments about buying a new house or some such. You can remind yourself you really don’t know what goes on in their households and they could be going so horribly into debt it could all blow up on them, or their relationship may be crappy and they’ll have to deal with losing it all in a nasty divorce, or maybe they have to deal with really mean relatives, etc. Sometimes that works for me. Hang in there. *hug*

  • Reply Zee May 4, 2015 at 13:13

    I’ve never really been in that situation… Only once, but it wasn’t a serious relationship at the time, and it didn’t last the longest anyways. Once upon a time I lost my job, while I didn’t share finances (or living situation) with my girlfriend at the time I was very mindful of my spending. I lived solely off of my unemployment checks during the time, this meant I couldn’t spend money on stuff I didn’t really need or nights out, drinks, dinners. I budgeted well and made due because I didn’t want to put any of my burden on her, but I also didn’t want to go into debt while doing it.

    To me I think that sounds like the most difficult part of your situation, if your husband still spends like he did before he lost his job then he doesn’t seem to be mindful of how your financial situation has changed. I’m guessing that if the situation was reversed and you lost your income and he had a job you would do what you could to pull your weight financially, even if all you could do was cut back on your expenses.

    I hope you figure out how to handle it, whether it’s a talk with your husband about how it’s making you feel, or learning to be okay with the new dynamic.

  • Reply raluca May 15, 2015 at 23:43

    I out-earn my husband, not by much and I love it :). In our marriage, it has always been about equal effort, rather than equal results. As long as both of us do just as much (going for full time jobs, trying to get better paying positions, having goals in our careers), then it does not matter who makes more, our finances will be fine. It helps when we’re earning a lot more than we’re spending and we have a nice cushion to take us through the bad patches.

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