Losing leverage in a relationship can be unsettling. James Willis, a 37-year-old theater director, comes from a very well-to-do family. He has always been financially generous with his lovers, many of whom have abused his impulse. Once, when he had forgotten his wallet at dinner, a boyfriend said to him, pointblank, “Well, I expect you to reimburse me. You have way more money than I do.”
Willis was furious. “It wasn’t about the money—it was about the effort and the expectation,” he said. “Why did I have to pay all the time?” He felt taken advantage of. Did people become involved with him solely because of his deep pockets?
But he also felt guilty. Who was he kidding? A hundred bucks was no big deal to him, whereas he knew it was a significant sum of money to his boyfriend. He broke off the relationship, and decided to not be so forthcoming about his finances in the future. “I just figured it was best to make sure people were with me for me, and not because I had money,” he explains.
As often as not, issues of wealth disparity can become complicated by traditional gender roles. “It’s a cultural expectation that men are going to be the breadwinners,” says Ginny Graves, co-author of For Richer or Poorer: Keeping Your Marriage Happy When She’s Making More Money. But today, when 35 percent of married working women earn more than their husbands, that expectation plays out in complex ways.
David Zweifler met his wife, Sarah, in 1997. Zweifler, now 34, was a research analyst for Bear Stearns; Sarah was head of marketing for a multinational law firm, raking in $30,000 more a year than he did. “I respected the fact that she was earning that much money,” he says. “But I made a point of covering at least half of the dates and dinners—and probably a little bit more, because I’m the guy.”
Sometimes, money issues can stop a relationship in its tracks. For five years, Sheila Velazques, 30, lived with a man who was unemployed for most of their time together. Part of the problem, she admits, was that he didn’t actively seek work—and by default she ended up paying his way. “It was a huge turnoff,” she says. “He had no ambition, and didn’t show any signs of changing. What if I had wanted to stay home with our kids?”