Dear Fran,

My boyfriend and I have been together for about three years and have recently moved in together. We have a wonderful relationship, and I'm sure that it's only a matter of time before we get married.

However, we have one issue that we can't seem to resolve once and for all: I make more money than he does. He has always been a bit sensitive about it, but we’ve always been able to gloss over it without it becoming a real sticking point. But moving in together has exacerbated the issue, because he's obsessed with splitting all of the bills and household costs right down the middle.

To me this just seems a bit silly. We’ll be combining our finances before too long anyway, so why make a big deal about it?

I want to help him feel comfortable with the situation. But I also don't understand what his hang-up is—none of our friends or family know how much either of us make, and it just doesn't matter that much to me. How can I help us reach a resolution?

Fighting over Finances

Dear Fighting,

True story: a couple I knew, Judy, a top executive, made way more money than Mike, a less-than-successful entrepreneur. Judy sometimes made comments calling attention to this disparity, and it was painful to see how hurt, powerless, and embarrassed this made Mike feel. So lacking in trust and support was their relationship that they actually kept their own food on different shelves, like two college roommates, even though they’d been married for years. This is not a route I recommend.

If your boyfriend appeared in my therapy office, I would empathize with his feelings of inferiority and low self-worth, discover their source, and invite him to take a look at his fragile ego. This being an advice column, I have to admit it is kind of silly, since it’s a problem even he knows has no realistic solution. What would he have you do? Take a pay cut to save his feelings? Surely not.

I also can’t help pointing out that while the treatment of women is truly appalling in many parts of this world, in America we have at least made progress in this area. His discomfort is based on a totally outmoded cultural and philosophical assumption that men should make more money than women. I bet if someone else asked him, he’d say he knows how archaic this idea is.

All that being said, this is probably more of an emotional issue for him than a philosophical one, and there are some things you can do.

First, distinguish between feelings, which are internal states, and behaviors, which occur in response to those internal states. Honestly examine your own feelings and behavior to determine whether you’ve been subtly (or not-so-subtly) sending him messages that hold this disparity over his head or exerting your own power because of it. Consider whether you ever poke fun at him over it.

Then, acknowledge his feelings, but look at his behavior too. Does he punish you for this in other ways? Does he start a fight every time the bills are being paid? Does he subtly act out his anger by being unavailable, uncooperative, or evasive? Does he put you down in subtle ways? If you’re seeing these behavioral patterns, then I’d say you have a problem that really needs to be addressed.

If this is truly the only issue in an otherwise blissful relationship, tell him, if you haven’t already, that you love him no matter how much money he makes. Reassure him that you’ll never tell anyone, and keep the promise. Encourage him to use humor to cope.

Also tell him, and learn it yourself, that self-worth comes from within. This is a very difficult concept in a society that places so much value on financial success. I love being a clinical social worker, but my sense of self-worth comes not from making a lot of money (ha!) but from all that I’ve learned and from helping people move forward in their lives. If your boyfriend gets satisfaction out of his work, it’s a good thing; if not, is that possibly the real crux of the issue?

If this isn’t part of a pattern, it’s likely one of those problems that may seem important now, but will go away as the years go by. Life is long, every marriage requires mutual support, flexibility, sacrifice, and compromise, and you may both find yourselves surprised by changes in your circumstances, desires, needs, hopes, and values. Perhaps one of you will get the entrepreneurial bug and need the total financial (and emotional) support of the other. Maybe one of you will have to (or want to) give up working for some period of time, say when you have an infant, or when a parent needs caretaking.

One way to avoid the conflict now is to move sooner rather than later to combine some amount of your financial resources. Maybe each of you contributes an equal amount of money or percentage of your paychecks into an operating fund and the bills and household expenses can be paid from there. That way, you'll avoid having to hash out dollars and cents every month.

In today’s culture, I think, it seems like almost a given that successful people must be ruthless, self-focused, and have little interest in creating mutually supportive relationships. But remember that ambitious, driven, and creative young women have the opportunity to make their own rules now, and may even be able to incorporate things like acceptance, kindness, understanding, and self-awareness not only into their personal relationships, but into their business lives as well.

I wish you good luck and also, perspective,

Fran

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Photo courtesy of Stephanie Wesolowski.