Growing up, my father controlled the finances in our family. And when I say he controlled the finances, I mean that he left my mother completely in the dark. Though she had a good job as a special education teacher, he had a higher-paying job as an attorney. That created a power dynamic that allowed him control over their finances until the day he died last year. It was only a few months before his death that my mother realized he had spent most of their savings, taken out a second mortgage on their house (without telling her, forging her name and spending the money without her consent) and had made no plans for her financial well-being after he was gone.
She’d allowed the discrepancy in their earning power to give him control over her life, and it cost her dearly.
Watching the two of them provided my first lessons in financial planning and marital survival, but not before I had the chance to make mistakes of my own.
When my husband and I got married, I made more money than he did. I had a big corporate job while he was busy running his own business. He was doing good in the world, and I was cashing in. We were both fine with this.
In hindsight, I can admit that the situation turned me into kind of an asshole. Maybe it turned me into my father a little. Making more money made me feel like I had the right to be in charge of our finances and make all of the major decisions about money. It gave me a sense of power and control that was unequal to the difference in our paychecks.
One example was when we were trying to put a bid to buy our first home. I unilaterally told our real estate agent to increase what we were offering by $10,000 without even glancing at my new husband.
“Do it!” I yelled into the phone like I was a crazed contestant on The Price is Right or Donald Trump opening Twitter at four in the morning.
My husband paused.
“Hey, there! I would’ve liked you to at least say something to me before you spent ten thousand dollars more on our house,” he said to me. He wasn’t wrong. It was the biggest purchase of both of our lives and involved using both of (almost all of) our money, and yet I felt like I was the only one in the driver’s seat because my take-home pay was greater than his.“Do it!” I yelled into the phone like I was a crazed contestant on The Price is Right or Donald Trump opening Twitter at four in the morning.
I did plenty of research on the topic. During my first year of marriage I tried to write and report my way into understanding what it meant to be married, to be someone’s wife. The result was a book called, fittingly, How to Be Married. What I learned is that in America, I was definitely in the minority when it came to earning power within a marriage. In 1970, only four percent of husbands had wives who brought home a higher income than they did. In 2016, only 24 percent of straight women earned more than their significant other, according to a study from Refinery29.
And there’s plenty of academic evidence that suggests that a woman earning more can lead to greater conflict in marriage. Research from the University of Chicago found that unequal earning, particularly when the woman makes more than the man, could contribute to higher divorce rates because it often makes both parties unhappy — husbands often resent their wives, and wives can feel like their husbands are slackers.
I’ve even witnessed it among my own friends. I had one girlfriend from college (let’s call her Anna) whose marriage dissolved because of a disparity in their pay. She was married to “Dave,” a really great guy who wrote really bad poetry. Writing really bad poetry was adorable in college when they first met. It was less adorable when Anna was working 80-hour weeks while Dave opined on the plight of the earthworm in uneven iambic pentameter. Their marriage slowly eroded for plenty of reasons beyond money, but Anna’s earning power turned her into a tyrant and Dave into the houseboy — the houseboy who ultimately had an affair with the nanny.
I never considered my husband a slacker. He works harder than anyone I know, but the conflation of money with power is a difficult thing to shake off. There were times when I behaved like the tyrant.
And then I got laid off. My big, fancy Internet employer was about to crumble, and the company eliminated my entire department. Goodbye, fancy salary and fancy benefits. In one fell swoop, we were dependent on my husband’s salary and had to switch over to his health insurance. It kept me up at night, thinking about how the recent changes in my earning power would shift the dynamic of our marriage.
Overnight, I felt a complete loss of control. I worried constantly that I wasn’t contributing enough, and that made me feel even more powerless. I overcompensated in irrational ways: I did more of the household chores — the cooking, the dog walking — all in an attempt to prove my worth in our household.
I have to note that all of this was in my head. I was the one beating myself up and fretting over the loss of control. My husband, on the other hand, was keen for me to take a breather — relax, find a new job I actually liked.
But my neuroses persisted. Being able to support myself, without depending on a spouse or parents or a boyfriend, was a badge of honor for me. My independence meant a lot to me, and having a salary that supported that was, in hindsight, crucial to my feelings of self-worth.
In losing what I viewed as “power” in our relationship, I realized it was never really power to begin with. It was hubris and self-importance, a false sense of security. The shift in our dynamic has forced difficult conversations within our marriage (difficult mainly for me). It never mattered to my husband who made more money. For him, what mattered was that we both felt like we had an equal say in how we spent whatever money was coming in.
To understand my own relationship with power and money, I had to lose it. It was a shitty lesson to learn but a necessary one. It took a breakdown of my world to start to understand that this is how a marriage should work, with an ebb and flow of earning power and responsibility, an openness of communication.
We now make more or less the same amount of money. We have more productive conversations about big purchases, and we are both better at thinking about the money as our money rather than his, hers and ours.
For the record, my mother is also now in control of her own finances for the first time in her life. I think it’s also the first time that she’s been truly happy. And you can’t put a price on that.