I Used To Be The Breadwinner — & That Ruined My Marriage

Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
In our series Not A Trophy Wife, we ask women how they feel when they earn less than their significant other. We've chatted with a nonprofit worker helping her pharmacist husband flip houses, a woman who gave up her career in Thailand for her husband, and a marketing analyst dating an investment banker.
In our ninth installment, we chat with a woman who makes £31,000 and is dating a man who makes £57,000 — but is struggling with money problems from a previous marriage.
So tell me about your previous relationship. How did you two meet?
"We met at college and we started dating after college. We lived outside of New York — I was working in marketing for a little while and making decent money, around $42,000 a year, and he was working in health and research. A few years into dating, though, I realized I really wanted to get my masters degree and I really wanted to travel, and he wanted to change careers but he wasn't sure what career to try. He felt open to traveling, so we decided to move to London. Moving to London was part of the reason we got married."
So you moved to London — you for school, and he moved just to find work? How did you manage this financially?
"I decided to take a loan out for my graduate school. That amounted to $70,000 — and I’m still paying that off. When we moved to London I thought my husband would get a job, and he’d be able to help at least cover half the expenses so I could pay off some of the loans in advance. That very first year in London, I was going to school and we were living on the loan money and my savings for the both of us. My husband, as it turned out, didn't find a job, and that second year I ended up working two jobs because my one job wasn’t enough to support us. So I was doing my dissertation and working two jobs, making around £27,000, and I had to start paying my loans back. It was unbelievably stressful."
£27,000 isn’t a lot for two people.
"To be honest I think I was a bit naive about how much I would make after I finished school. I thought, you know, with a masters, that I would make maybe around the same as what I was making before. But the salaries in the U.K. are much lower. I was working at an office, and at night I would work on a book project that was remote work. I was doing a normal eight-hour day, and then I’d work another four or five on the book, so I didn’t really sleep much for a year and a half. We were living the bare minimum, never doing anything social, and somehow there just seemed to be hidden costs in our day-to-day living, and I don’t really know why."
Can you talk about what your husband was doing to support you?
"So he would help around the house, and he made sure all the bills were paid, because I didn’t have time to do laundry and cook. He was looking for a job, but he wasn't really sure what he wanted, and I think increasingly getting depressed about that. I dealt with it because I thought we were in it together and this was a temporary difficult time, and that we would be fine in the future. I looked at it like we were sharing this financial burden together, and I had a lot of faith that it was going to change.
Halfway through the second year, though, after I had tried a number of different things — I had worked on lots of different courses with him and asked all sorts of friends to pull favors and nothing was working — that’s when the resentment really started building. I think I spent around $27,000 supporting both of us...and it just felt like I had put so much effort in, and wasn’t getting it returned."

"I never expected him to pay for everything, but I had expected that he would pay for at least half."

How did your conversations about money usually go?
"I never expected him to pay for everything, but I had expected that he would pay for at least half. So usually I would be like, listen, I need you to pay half, and in order to pay half, all you need is a local job in a shop. It doesn’t have to be what you want to do for the rest of your life; it could be something part time that can hold us over. He would say yes, but then just wouldn’t do anything. So it was more of me pleading for help, and I don’t know. I don’t know why it just didn’t work out. After a while, it didn’t feel like we were in it together anymore. And he just felt more and more, I don’t know, embarrassed about his situation and hopeless, and it really affected his self-esteem."
So…how did it end?
"It was not a clean break. I thought maybe if he moved back to the states, he would be able to find a job, and then if he was able to find a job there, then maybe I would move back and join him. So at first it was a bit of a test to see if it was just the location that held him back from financially helping. But three months after he moved back, he still didn’t have a job, so that was it. He was in the states, I was in London, and I realized that he would never be able to help if I wanted a family. Like, I couldn’t continue with someone I can’t rely on to help me with at least half the bills. If anything happened to me, if I had an accident or god forbid I went to the hospital and I couldn’t work, I wouldn’t be able to rely on him to pick things up for me. And I already wasn’t making very much and I had spent all my savings and had taken some significant loans and I had to deal with that. It was just too much of a burden, too much to keep going with it."
Do you think things would be different if you were making more money?
"I do actually. Yes and no. No in that I lost a little bit of respect for him, and I think respect is critical with attraction. I think you really have to respect who you’re with, and yeah it’s an integral part of the relationship. But then, I also think, if money had never been an issue, I might have just carried on. I do think it would’ve become a problem eventually, though. There were other things. He was just unreliable, and I don’t think you can have a relationship with someone who is unreliable. For example, we had agreed that he would go back to school to help him get back on his feet, so we worked on his application for a really long time, and all he had to do was get his references in order. Weeks later, I found out that he hadn’t sent it at all. That, to be honest, was a major breaking point for me. I thought, if you won’t even do that, there’s just no hope, really."
Where were you financially when your marriage ended?
"I was not in a good position. I had maybe $4,000 or $5,000 in credit card debt. My loans, which were undergrad plus grad school, were about $70,000, and I was earning around £27,000. So it wasn’t great. At the beginning I felt really liberated, but it was a false sense of freedom. I had so many financial obligations. I was like, I can travel when I want and use my money just for me, but really I didn’t have money to do anything. It did feel good, though, to not have to provide for anyone else and be able to do whatever I wanted."
Did you ever talk about money after the divorce?
"I was conflicted, and I went back and forth about it. When you care about someone for so long, it’s hard, and especially if they’ve been in a really bad place, you don’t want to make it worse. We didn’t own a house together, we didn’t have any children together, but you know, he had lived off my loan and my salary. But he had also taken the risk and moved to another country for me. It was difficult, and I discussed it with my parents, who thought that if I included a lawyer, the cost of including a lawyer and the cost of whatever legal battles that might happen would not be justified. So he paid me back maybe $2,000 and we left it at that. We left things on good terms, and I still talk to him. He has a job, but I’m not sure what it is."
So it’s been five years — what has changed since then?
"So the credit card debt is gone, but the loan is definitely not. I’m making the monthly payments but not any more than that, which isn’t really helpful. I’ve paid off pretty much all the undergrad, but most of the graduate loan is still there. Of course I’ve had problems with currency exchange because as soon as Brexit happened the pound fell against the dollar dramatically. But I moved to Scotland recently and I’ve been working part-time and am about to start a full-time position, making £31,000."
What sparked you to move to Scotland?
"Well I met my current partner randomly in a bar a year ago, and when he found out how much I had in loans, he came around with solutions. We had joked around that we should live together, but once he found out about this loan it became something that he was seriously pushing. We wanted to see each other more regularly, we only saw each other every two weeks, and he thought it would be best for me to live in his flat rent-free. So yeah, he just did the calculations and said, 'you know, if you’re not paying for rent and I’m saving this much and you’re saving this much from traveling, this is how much all together we would be saving.' It just made sense.

"I thought we were going to break up, to be honest, and I was really disappointed and then even more resentful of my ex."

How did the first discussion about your loans come up?
"It was awkward. He would always want to go on holiday and I would have to say, 'I can’t really pay that.' I could tell he was getting frustrated and he was like, I don’t understand. How much is your loan? He was very taken aback when he found out the amount — he was really upset at first because he had never had any serious debt for any amount. He thought that I had a spending problem or something. Eventually he kind of came around to the fact that it was education loans, but it was a really uncomfortable situation. I thought we were going to break up, to be honest, and I was really disappointed and then even more resentful of my ex. I wasn’t supposed to be in this situation. I was supposed to have been able to pay a lot more off, and I thought a future relationship had been put at risk because of this baggage that I had."
Well, what’s his financial situation like?
"My partner makes about £57,000 pounds, and he has investments and things like that, but I don’t know anything about those. He’s overpaying his mortgage, no car payment, and in Scotland they pay absolutely nothing for education, nothing for health, and his parents gave him a bit of money to have an apartment, so the idea of having this kind of massive debt is crazy to him.
"But he’s been incredibly helpful, helping me get ways to refinance my loan. It was weird for me. With my previous relationship, I was the one who always had to think of what was best for the both of us. So it’s really interesting for me to be with someone who decided to take charge of things. Even though we don’t have a shared bank account, and at the time we weren’t even living in the same city, but my current partner was really keen to help me get over this massive loan."
What is it like to be on the other side?
"It’s weird. I mean I feel lucky, obviously, that I don’t have to worry about certain things anymore. It does make me more frustrated with my previous relationship, because I dealt with it for so long, and it’s really nice to be taken care of. But then I also became a bit more sympathetic to my ex. When I first moved here, I just felt lonely and freaked that I was so reliant on my partner, and it is depressing when you feel helpless. It was really uncomfortable for me. I felt like I couldn’t have a say in the house, because it wasn’t mine, or that I couldn’t have the heater on even though I might want it on more. I actually felt very nervous at the beginning because I thought, if this doesn’t work out, I’ll be left with nothing. He’s been very, very generous, but of course that worries me. I was generous once, and I know how things end up when things don’t go well."
Have you talked to your partner about this at all?
"Yeah, I told him, 'It’s really scary that I’m relying so much on you, and I don’t feel entirely comfortable with it.' And he said, 'Well, good thing I’m reliable.'"
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Have a story you'd like to share? Email us at moneystories@refinery29.com. Or, submit a money diary here.

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