Maintaining Relationship Equality When You Earn More (Or Less)!

Love, Self

Resentment can build when earnings are uneven. Don't let finances tear your relationship apart!

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, but 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, according to Gudmunson and is colleagues. Skogrand and company found that all forms of debt, especially auto loans and credit card debt, is associated with lower relationship quality. Conversely, other researchers found that couples’ financial satisfaction is predictive of relationship quality, and another study showed 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, according to Jan Pahl. One research team 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 a few months of his slush fund money to pay for new car stereo, she can’t complain.

2. Remain positive, and remain honest. The first step to overcoming financial conflict is to bring any negative communication about money down to zero. Negativity only makes matters worse. Avoid lording your contribution over your partner (“I make the money, so I can decide how to spend it”), guilt-trips (“How can you be mad that I spent $10? What about when you spent money on all that chocolate?!), and blame (“We wouldn’t be in this fix if you hadn’t bought that exercise machine you never use). Again, these behaviors DO NOT HELP! When you have a legitimate concern to discuss, bring it up calmly and without criticism. And never spend your pooled money with the intent to conceal it from your partner.

3. Take a financial management course together. In my own research, I found that couples who took a financial management course together saw improved scores on a relationship quality measure, and the improvement held over time. When asked how the course impacted their relationship, couples reported that they were communicating more about their finances, and they felt “on the same page,” and on the same “team.”  The couple might also benefit from some individualized counseling from a licensed financial coach.

Have you found other ways to maintain equality in your relationship when your partner earns more or less than you? Leave your comment below!

Dr. Zimmerman offers relationship counseling in Ames, Iowa.