Love, Money & Commitment: The Life Of An Un-Wife

unmarried money love
Love, Self

How an unmarried but completely committed couple manages money.

Mike believes it's only fair that Jenny repay him for his contribution to the apartment, in which she has gained equity. He has always known her to be an honest and upright person, and there was talk of settling up when they first considered splitting. But Jenny has made no move to pay Mike. Maybe she is getting back at him, with the only weapon she has. Maybe she feels that her financial injustice equals his emotional injustice.

These days, divorce courts rarely calculate the dollar value of pain. In divorce, the judge splits the joint wealth down the middle. If there are children, the judge looks at the income, earning potential, and expenses of each parent, then calibrates child support.

What if the stresses and disappointments of the coupled life threatened to overwhelm Paul's and my love? What would hold us together? We have no kids. While we'd forfeit some of the comfort we now enjoy, both of us would be able to support ourselves, as we did before we met. We have 17 years' history together, and that is nothing to sneeze at—but we also, I hope, have decades ahead of us.

A set of glasses, a sofa, a rug, even a house cannot prevent the alienation of two people from each other. Still, I'd be lying were I to claim that property has nothing to do with why, and how, we stay together. The house is more than a building. It is a monument to our mutual struggles and pleasures, our fears and our security. In the hard-fought shape and size of its rooms and hallways, the lovingly chosen colors of its walls, the books and photos on its shelves, our names are engraved on the house, side by side, and forever will be.

We are still working it out, this tricky interaction of love and money. Paul has suggested a joint checking account, which he sees as a way to further our unity. I see it as a means of surveillance and a potential source of bickering. How much independence is healthy? What abets commitment, what undermines it?

Having finished my fourth book, I am reassessing my career. I'd like to take more time to learn new media, collaborate on creative projects, read and think—activities that are not likely to earn money. Would Paul support me, even for a few months? Should I do all the housework as compensation? Would he expect that from me—or secretly hope that I'll return the favor in the future? What if I can never afford to?

When Paul bought me the car, I felt saved but not entirely safe, like family but not quite. Maybe that's a good thing—better than assuming a future that is by no means guaranteed. After all, parents do not always bail out their children, adult children do not always take care of their aged parents. Divorced women often end up poor. How much security is reasonable to expect?

The questions are the same as they were in the first years of our life together. What is practical? What is fair? And they are different. Should Paul and I aim for perfect financial equality? Or does that quest betray—or even encourage— the suspicion that one is putting in more than her share and the other taking advantage?

It is still not easy to answer these questions or even, after fifteen years, to talk about them, because for Paul and me, as for most of us, money has a childhood history; it represents identity, status, independence, security, and—when exchanged or shared between intimates—love.

We will probably never finish working it out. In the meantime, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, we are pulling tighter the knot we never legally tied.

Reprinted with permission from Riverhead Books. To buy One Big Happy Family, click here.