Can Income Inequality Hurt A Relationship?

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unnamed-1Illustrated by Ammiel Mendoza.
A few months ago, I was promoted at work, and now I'm making more money than my boyfriend. It wasn't an issue until he recently suggested that I pay more of the rent and bills. I'm a modern woman, but I was pretty insulted and disgusted. I mean, on one hand, I get paying more to make things easier on him financially, but on the other, I want us to be 50/50 partners and think that's the only way to keep things fair now and going forward in case things change. Am I wrong or is he?

Beryl Tritel, Licensed Master Social Worker
Congrats on the promotion! That must have felt fantastic being rewarded for your hard work, so I understand how your boyfriend “charging” you for this major accomplishment might leave a bad taste in your mouth. But, it sounds like there are a couple of major dynamics at play, so let’s look at this objectively before you make any decisions. There’s a reason that finances are the number one cause of divorce (more than adultery even, and by a wide margin), and that’s because when you mess with someone’s money, you mess with their emotions. Anything that’s related to one’s survival is registered as a threat, so I imagine this issue is a stressor for both of you.

For you, your 50/50 ideal of equality is being challenged; for him, he might be frustrated with his financial situation, and there might be some resentment brewing. After all, traditionally, men were supposed to bring home the bacon for women to fry in the pan, so what happens when those stereotypes (thankfully) start to disappear? Our ideas about gender roles and responsibilities can be hard-wired at an early age, so compromise on this issue will require communication. I'm curious about how he brought up the topic — was he asking you, or telling you? I'm even more curious (and amused) why you think that because you two disagree that one of you has to be wrong! From objective perspectives, both of you have valid points that just need to be discussed to come to a resolution. That said, this doesn’t mean you’re going up against some knuckle-dragging caveman or a mooching slacker. In fact, it actually sounds like you’ve been more affected by traditional norms than you’re ready to admit.

Bea Arthur, Licensed Mental Health Counselor
That’s true. As a “modern woman,” wouldn’t you agree that the amount one partner contributes to shared expenses be proportionate to the amount that’s coming in, regardless of gender? If the circumstances were reversed, it would be a nice gesture for him to put in a little bit more to take some pressure off of your plate and not many people would question it, so maybe we should examine your resistance a little. Historically, men have been expected to be the primary provider, so does it bother you that this expectation now falls to you? Of course, you didn’t sign up to be his mother, but that’s not what he’s asking. It sounds like his idea of his idea of “fair” is the person who makes more should pay more. 50/50 is a nice notion but the truth is that life happens in the gray areas, so both of you should do your best to be open-minded and flexible.

Bottom line: If one of you has a problem then both of you do, so sit down, chart out your personal and shared expenses, and come to a compromise. Outline specific bills you’d be willing to take over, and if necessary, set a date to re-evaluate the terms based on your respective financial progress. Just remember that neither of you should to be too rigid when deciding the fair share. Think of that one person at any group dinner who wants to pay less because they didn’t “have that much tiramisu.” Nobody likes that person, so don’t be that person. The goal is to go back to getting along and come to an agreement that both of you are comfortable with.

On the other hand, if you’re just not comfortable with the idea, then say so. Money makes people emotional, which is understandable because, as Beryl said, you worked really hard to get it! But, keep in mind that you’re in a serious relationship, so you’re not making decisions just in your own interest anymore.

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