Why do so many women choose to give up their economic independence?
At 31, Julia Jamison* was the right age for marriage—old enough to know what she wanted, but young enough to wait a few years before having children. Ben, her fiancé, was a successful screenwriter; Jamison, a law school dropout who was currently unemployed, had sailed through a top Ivy League college and was contemplating her next career move.
Their wedding—an elaborate event studded with enough boldfaced names to fill a dozen gossip columns—seemed the perfect union of cultures as well as families. All reports indicated that the newlyweds were doing well—right up until a month before their first wedding anniversary.
That was when Ben announced that he wanted a divorce. “We both expected me to work, but he was very clear that I could do whatever I wanted as long as it made me happy,” says Jamison. “But in practice, that didn’t turn out to be true. He was so angry, so dismissive of me when I was not working.”
Financial reliance on her new husband, she continues, had turned her into someone else entirely: humiliated, demoralized, frustrated, and impotent. “I was incredibly naïve,” she admits. “I had not realized that money is power in a relationship. If I’d been economically independent, I wouldn’t have taken nearly as much shit from him. But I didn’t have any chips.”
According to experts, that toxic dynamic is all too common in relationships where the man is the sole breadwinner. “Women without their own income have less power in their marriages,” says sociologist Barbara Risman, former co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families. “If your partner is also your paycheck, you’re in a different position to make demands. So if you earn no money, or less money, you’re going to be less likely to win when you have disagreements. And this decreases the quality of the marriage.”
But these days, young women seem increasingly inclined to ignore such considerations. Like Julia Jamison, many spend more time planning their weddings than figuring out how they’re going to support themselves for the rest of their lives.
The renewed popularity of stay-at-home motherhood has led a lot of young women to believe they don’t have to get serious about a profession, because they’re just going to quit when they have children anyway. Instead of dreaming about individual achievement, they imagine a career of domestic bliss, enjoying an affluent lifestyle that will be paid for indefinitely by an obliging husband.
For many working women, it’s difficult to believe that today’s young women would subscribe to such an old-fashioned attitude.
But in a suburb of Chicago, a 17-year-old confides that her primary goal for the future is to have an enormous, extravagant wedding, which she refers to as her “Bridezilla” fantasy. In the Bronx, a 17-year-old with the highest grade-point average in her class is admitted to Harvard, but says she’s planning to stop working and stay home as soon as she has kids. In Houston,yet another 17-year-old reports that all her friends’ mothers are telling them to find a rich man to marry, so they won’t “have to” work.
But as many older women learn too late, that scenario doesn’t always work out so well. “My husband’s niece is very pretty, and her parents raised her to marry a rich guy so she wouldn’t have to work,” says Amanda Barron*, a former dancer who lives in a New York City suburb.
“She dropped out of college to marry her husband, and they had three children. Now she’s 31, and he’s just left her. She has no education, no career, no work experience, and no skills. She also has no idea how she’s going to support herself. Her husband is being nasty about money, she can’t pay her bills, and she’s in a lot of trouble.”
In marriages that stay together, conflicts over money can still be vicious. “I have friends whose husbands are torturing them,” says Wendy Greenberg*, a Manhattan stay-at-home wife who prides herself on being able to buy what she wants without her husband objecting.
“The wives feel they don’t have as much worth because they don’t work, and the husbands agree. Because they’re bringing in the money, it’s ‘No, you can’t buy the boots for $250!’ A lot of these women have husbands who make millions of dollars a year, and they still say, ‘You can’t get the boots.’”
Even when husbands are nice about it, women who had been accustomed to supporting themselves can find it unexpectedly galling to play such an infantilized role.
“It’s really hard to ask for money,” says Claire Matthews*, who gave up her career as an actress when she and her husband adopted two children. “If I want to stop and get a chai while I wait for the results of my allergy tests at the doctor’s office, I feel guilty. The other day, I had to ask my husband for money to go buy some new underwear. He wants to know every little penny I’m spending and what it’s spent on.”
When this loss of power dawns on dependent wives, it often causes great unease. “My sister is a stay-at-home mom, and her husband is a very successful physician. She doesn’t need to work, but being financially dependent scares her,” says Susan Robinson*, an executive who lives in New Jersey. “Her husband keeps all the financial information from her. He has literally awakened her in the middle of the night and told her to sign the tax returns, so she wouldn’t review them.”
Robinson herself is a telecommunications executive, and is appalled by such subservience. “I don’t think women realize how easy it is to get into the mode of asking as opposed to stating. When the husband says, ‘I’ll let you know,’ you’re waiting for permission.”
Apprehensive about whether they will receive it, wives frequently resort to subterfuge in order to get what they want. “In my business, I see the shell game women play with their husbands, particularly where there’s this imbalance of economic power,” says Darcy Howe, a Merrill Lynch investment advisor in Kansas City, Missouri. “Women who don’t have economic power feel this need to sneak around if their husbands might not approve of the ways they’re spending the money. It’s a little game they’re playing.”
The more income a woman brings into her household, however, the more leverage she tends to have.
In the early years of her marriage, EllenWarwick* sacrificed her own career several times to follow her husband from one country to another. He was finally transferred home to Washington, D.C., where Warwick eagerly resumed her professional life.
He didn’t notice that their relationship had reached a turning point until they filled out their income tax forms. “My marriage changed forever the day my husband realized I was making more money than he was,” Warwick says. “He realized he couldn’t order me around like a servant any more, and he started treating me with much more respect.”
For Julia Jamison, the demise of her marriage also marked the end of her willingness to depend on a man. She returned to law school to finish her degree, and soon had several enticing job offers to welcome her into a different way of life.
But while she hopes to remarry and have a family someday, she does not intend to resume the role of a nonworking wife, no matter how rich or generous her next husband might be. “I’m never going to be in this position again,” she vows. “I don’t want to be psychologically terrorized because I went to Whole Foods and spent money on something.”
The lesson may have been painful, but to Jamison, the takeaway is very clear: “I want complete financial independence,” she says.
Adapted from The Feminine Mistake by Leslie Bennetts, published by Voice, an imprint of Hyperion.
*Name has been changed.