Many couples strive for a sense of equality and balance in their intimate relationships. They hunger for partnerships where both people feel powerful--able to get what they want in the relationship and in their own lives.
Large money differences often upset this dream of equality. The partner with greater income or assets in a couple is frequently perceived by both parties as having more power--more influence over the couple's decisions, more freedom to craft his or her own life, and more authority to decide whether and how the couple will share financial resources.
In other areas of life the rules of social interaction usually cushion people from confronting economic differences directly. For example, people may work side-by-side with others earning twenty times more or less than they do, but they don't ask their co-workers, "How do you feel about our difference in pay?" Couples who cross social or economic strata in their intimate relationships cannot avoid these painful questions. They are challenged to meet economic differences head on, opening their hearts as well as minds.
For many people, financial differences and power imbalances are hard to untangle because they are so emotionally charged. Here are a few of the complex feelings people struggle with:
For those with less money:
- "I'm embarrassed to even bring up the subject of money. I'd hate for her to think I'm greedy or out for her wealth. Besides, it's her money; I'm not entitled to it."
- "I resent having to be the one to bring this up. If Howard trusted me, he would just treat the money as ours."
- "I'm scared to assume responsibility for James' wealth. He was groomed to manage money, and I was taught nothing about it."
For those with more money:
- "I feel ashamed that I've barely taken control of my wealth myself. I'm afraid if I share my money with Peter he'll be just like my dad, either mocking me or taking over."
- "I'm scared to share money with Joan because I'm not convinced she's completely committed to us being together. But the problem is circular: it seems her discomfort with our extreme money differences makes it hard for her to commit!"
- "I feel critical of how Jonathon uses money, and I don't know what to do about my judgments."
Some couples try to tip-toe around their power differences, fearing that talking about them will only open a "Pandora's Box" of unsolvable issues. But differences left unaddressed often deepen into chilly reservoirs of distance and mistrust. On the other hand, with persistent work (done gently and respectfully), even complicated and emotionally-charged imbalances can be untangled and slowly healed.
Moving Tenderly Towards Greater Balance
Couples working to reduce their money-related power differences, often move (roughly) through the stages described below. In the beginning, they focus more on attitudes (e.g., healing from past hurts, building self-worth and self-confidence), after which they are more ready to focus on financial circumstances (e.g., helping both partners gain access to material resources and the ability to manage them).
Stage 1: Discontent Most often, one person starts voicing (sometimes indirectly) his or her frustration with the power dynamics in the relationship. Soon both people are unhappy with their economic arrangements, but they don't feel ready to change them. Although this stage feels bad, it is an important step towards greater balance.
Stage 2: Social Awareness An important part of the healing process comes when couples notice how their relationship is influenced by dynamics in the wider society. Financial differences are often complicated by each partner's experience of societal discrimination due to gender, race, class, age, able-bodiedness, religion, etc. For instance, compared to a partner from "dominant" groups (e.g. male, white, upper-class...) a partner from "subordinate" groups is likely to have less earning power, less credibility competing for higher status jobs, and less self-confidence about his or her power in the world.
These social differences may exacerbate financial inequalities (for instance, when an upper-class man is with a working-class woman) or create confusing cross-currents (for instance, if a wealthy young woman is with an older working-class man). In this stage, the couple grows increasingly aware of the oppressive messages they each internalized from the past and the social forces that are continuing to shape their lives in the present.
Stage 3: Dialogue Partners make the time and establish the trust to talk directly about how they each experience the money and power differences in their relationship. (See page 6 for suggestions on creating constructive dialogue.) They look at the effects of dominant and subordinate roles on their relationship to money, and seek the support of others from their own background to grow in awareness and heal from the past.
Partners ask each other what has been good and what has been hard about being from their own backgrounds, and listen deeply to each other's stories. They affirm their commitment to be together and validate the important qualities they each bring, despite their differences, to the relationship and their lives.
Stage 4: Exploration of Options Once partners feel their differing life histories have been heard and respected, they can more constructively discuss the nitty-gritties of what they want financially. If needed, they seek technical and emotional support from friends and professionals, with the aim of generating a range of possible options which would move their financial relationship in directions they want to go. (See sidebar)
Stage 5: Experimentation and Evaluation Partners choose among the various options and come up with creative experiments to move towards balancing financial power. They design manageable steps which move them towards balancing financial power without creating excessive anxiety. After a designated time of implementation, they discuss how well their experiments are meeting their goals and revise them as needed.
Two examples of "Experimentation and Evaluation" are in the personal stories section.
- Edorah tried an experiment where she put $10,000 of her assets into a joint account with her husband. Making financial decisions together felt better than either of them expected, and a year later they chose to pool all their resources.
- Sara and Robbie determined that a challenging yet manageable step towards equality would be for them to share Sara's investment income. After six months they sat down together, talked about how it was feeling to each of them, and decided to continue the arrangement indefinitely.
Nurturing Greater Change
Of course, there is no one "right solution" to power imbalances. Different people tolerate different degrees of financial and power inequality in their relationships. So long as arrangements are consciously chosen (rather than a result of avoidance or hopelessness), there are many ways to cooperatively craft financial lives that support both people in having what they want, individually and in the relationship. Couples cannot erase their power differences. Even if they completely equalized their money (or put all assets in the less-wealthy partner's name!) they would not undo the ongoing effects of class background, race, gender, etc. But by increasing their understanding of the social forces at work, helping each other heal from oppressive internalized messages, and crafting more satisfying financial arrangements, couples can significantly improve the balance of power in their relationships.
Ultimately, power cannot be truly equal in relationships until gross social inequities are eliminated from the society. People whose relationships cross social and economic strata have a special opportunity to contribute to this process. When partners face, respect, and talk about their economic differences, they often grow in their empathy and understanding towards people from other financial backgrounds. They develop skills dealing with difference which they can transfer to their workplace and their communities. They have deeper confidence, based on personal experience, that it is indeed possible to move from major inequities towards economic sharing. In other words, their personal experience can increase their power to contribute effectively to greater social justice in the wider world. .
The ideas in this article are based on our experience counselling couples at the Impact Project. If you want to talk to counselors specializing in wealth issues, write us at the Impact Project for a one-page listing. (Please let us know of ones we might add to our list.) We also have a page of exercises for couples exploring how to share financial control.
If you would like a copy of these resources, please send a SASE and $2 to the Impact Project, 21 Linwood St., Arlington, MA 02174.
Financial counselors and family therapists may provide useful perspective and guidance with money issues in relationships. Shop around, as some are likely to be more sensitive to your situation and needs than others.
The organizations below offer workshops on building alliances across social differences. They may also be able to refer you to helpful literature.
- National Coalition-Building Institute, 1835 K St., NW, Suite 715, Washington, DC 20006. (202)785-9400.
- Diversity Works, PO Box 2335, Amherst, MA 01004. (413) 256-1868.
- Equity Institute, 6400 Hollis St., Suite 15, Emeryville, CA 94608, (510)658-4577.
Issues for Discussion
There are several distinct aspects of people's financial lives which may be blended or kept independent:
- Ownership (who has legal access to assets and income)
- Management (who balances checkbooks, oversees investments, figures out taxes, makes budgets, pays bills, etc.)
- Decision-making (who decides how the money is earned and where the money goes, including daily expenses, unusual expenses, investments, and giving)
In generating options, couples may also consider different:
- Types of income (earned, investment, gifts)
- Categories of assets (investments, trust funds, and personal property such as homes or cars)
- Different amounts of money (e.g., percentages of income or assets)
All of the above can be mixed and matched by couples to design financial arrangements that meet their particular needs. The variations from separate to merged are limitless.
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