Maintaining Relationship Equality When Your Partner Earns More

Marriage Educator: How To Handle Marriage Finances

It's easy for resentment to build if one partner brings home all of the bacon.

The Scenario

"Now, we're going to the mall just to let you boys play in the play area," Alan says to his wife Carol and his three boys on a rainy Saturday morning. "We're not able to buy anything right now. Understood?"

Later, Alan sees Carol with a shopping bag. "What's that?" Alan asks.

"It's a special chess set to teach beginners. Tyler begged for it, and I don't know how to play chess. I figured I can learn. Besides," she adds, "it was half-off!"

"But we already have a chess set at home, and you can learn to play online!" Alan says angrily. "I can't believe you spent money when I said, coming in here, that we can't afford to buy anything right now!"

The Problem

Money isn't just a tool or form of property, writes couples therapist Margaret Shapiro; it is also a medium representing relational dynamics, such as power, control, competence, security, commitment, acknowledgement, and caring, to which other researchers add freedom, validation, respect, and even happiness. As the breadwinner and bill payer, Alan knows the family's financial situation. Carol works hard too, but her care of the children goes unpaid, and thus largely invalidated. 

On the surface, Alan appears to be using his position of breadwinner as a source of power and control in the relationship. Beneath the surface, however, what money really means for Alan is security and a way to care for and provide for the necessities of his family. Carol, on the other hand, feels powerless in the relationship with regard to money, because she knows she isn't contributing financially. For her, buying the game is a demand for more freedom, validation, and respect. 

The Research

It's no secret that money is a key cause of conflict in many relationships. Financial stress translates to emotional distress between couples.  All forms of debt, especially auto loans and credit card debt, are associated with lower relationship quality. Conversely, couples' financial satisfaction is predictive of relationship quality, and research has found that paying off credit cards leads to couples enjoying improved relationships.

At the heart of most financial conflict is poor communication, or sometimes the complete lack of it. Many couples rarely or never discuss finances with their partners. One research team that found money conflicts were more severe than other conflicts and less likely to be resolved.

The Solution

Below are three suggestions for maintaining equality when couples earn different amounts.

1. Use a 1-pool, 2-slush-funds arrangement. Incomes can fluctuate greatly over the course of a relationship. Alan earns more now, while Carol's at home with the kids, but Carol may go back to work — and Alan might someday lose his job. The most egalitarian financial practice for couples is to pool all of their money into one account, and each partner gets a slush fund — an equal amount of money every month to spend, however they want. The pooled money is used to pay for food, housing, gas, and so on. The slush fund is used for unnecessary things that only one partner will enjoy. If Carol wants to spend $40 on a new handbag from her slush fund, Alan shouldn't say anything about it, and if Alan wants to save his slush fund money for a few months to pay for his new car stereo, she can't complain. Keep reading...

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