Money and marriage: The taboo inequality

Money and marriage: The taboo inequality
25 June 2013

A woman commented recently on cashy that she knows her husband would never allow her to be financially independent. I wonder if she wants to be married to him or is stuck in the marriage because she is simply cannot survive, financially on her own.

Maybe it is her choice; there are women who long for the old ways, a symbiosis of husbands as providers and women as homemakers. What a wonderful thing to want to be in a relationship and not be belittled or diminished by it or your partner.

On the other hand, what a terrible thing, to be economically incarcerated.

No voice

Many women, unfortunately, are economic prisoners. One way of describing marriage is a golden cage, and this speaks volumes to me – a prison that is somehow socially acceptable, and from which, for many, there is no escape.

But it’s not always women who are economically vulnerable – although the irony is that, if they are not, they can become vulnerable in other ways.

Let me explain: I recently learnt from a therapist that earning power is a big issue for couples; men who earn less than their partners invariably resent this at some level, even if they are adamant that they don’t. 

How does it manifest itself? Well, in various ways, such as projection, deflection, denial, avoidance, withdrawal of intimacy and intimate contact, resistance, derision, low self-esteem, all of which can then translate into a sense of superiority. In a society where high-income levels command respect, it appears that the traditional breadwinner would compensate for inferior income by projecting superiority in other areas. Needless to say this is a one-way phenomenon: women rarely if ever react in this way when they earn less than their partners. It seems we are not as modern as we like to think.

Earner power struggles

Remember the adage: (S)he who owns the gold makes the rules? Well, according to psychologist Linda Sakr, quite a few relationships have an issue with money as power. This can take the form of one person withholding money if a partner doesn’t do exactly what he or she wants, such as in the case of a woman who is allowed to drive a fancy car and go on extravagant shopping sprees abroad if she does exactly what her partner demands. I would hope that most relationships don’t have this kind of unhealthy dynamic, but I’d say in dependent relationships this type of behaviour probably surfaces from time to time.

The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter who brings in the dollars. A committed relationship is about teamwork. It’s been said that relationships where the partners separate their earnings have a greater chance of failure, and so one way of addressing this is for money to go into one account and for it to be shared equally: both partners need to have the same access to it.

Is this how you do things?

Married money

I find that people in relationships come up with somewhat unique ways of handling money. For example, I know of a couple who take out their spending budget for the month in cash, they put it in envelopes and proceed to allocate what they spend to different pots, like entertainment, personal and so on. If one partner runs out of cash at any point, he/she can borrow from the other, but they must then reimburse their partner from the next month’s budget. Their money is mixed together at source in a joint account, but they spend very separately, to the extent of drawing gasps of disbelief from fellow diners when they split the bill, with both of them reaching into their respective envelopes, or openly stating how much one owes the other if either is short. 

And there’s more. The rule is if one party splurges, the other is entitled to do whatever they want with an equal amount of money. When you think about it, they’re being extremely fair and transparent, but socially bordering on abnormal, where their friends actually question how together they really are, the idea being that they should each happily pay for the other. All this openness is probably embarrassing for the people they’re with. But it certainly isn’t embarrassing for them. I’ve asked.

Main breadwinners

Now, back to the issue of one party being a major or only earner. Well, this can translate into behaviours that can come across as self-entitlement: ‘I go out to work all day, I deserve an XYZ’. The stay-at-home spouse or small earner then has guilt and no sense of entitlement. So how about this: if one party, usually the earner, usually the husband, buys himself a big toy, then he should allocate an equal amount and transfer it to his wife’s account for her to spend on whatever she wishes.

Fair play

There is no best way of handling money in a committed relationship. But if it’s handled openly, honestly and jointly, then it can strengthen your union.

Let us go back to the idea of marriage. Wouldn’t you rather yours was based on choice and the desire to be together, as opposed to being either beholden to or bullying your partner? Would you trade emotional stability and happiness for material possessions?

How about a relationship of sharing and fairness, where everyone is equally valued, no matter who brings in more gold, where both of you are committed and want to be together? What a wonderful thing.

This article by Nima Abu-Wardeh first appeared in The National

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