May 05, 2021

Money, Relationships, and Control

Even in the modern-day dual-income era, one partner in particular often has the financial upper hand. Because money and control are so interconnected, this disparity often leads to a toxic dynamic; one partner runs the show, and the other partner gets run.

This power struggle plays out in ways both explicit and implicit, though the latter—the unspoken and assumed—is what most often shows up. Here’s how it tends to play out: the partner with money expects the lower-earning partner to “make up for” their lesser income through, for lack of a better word, “services.” The lower earner is expected—again, often implicitly—to drop everything to serve the higher earner’s emotional and physical needs, maintain the house, do all the cooking and cleaning, and take care of any children. The lower-earning partner feels he/she/they must constantly show gratitude to the higher earner, and resentment and criticism abounds on both sides. 

An unfortunate result of this dynamic is that the higher-earning partner tends to threaten divorce or separation, which sends the lower-income spouse into a tailspin. The lower-income spouse now realizes his or her financial dependence and is left with a choice between leaving the relationship and experiencing a reduced standard of living versus appeasing the higher earner in order to maintain the marriage. 

This negativity cuts both ways. Because the lower earner feels disempowered, he or she tends to strike back with passive-aggressive behaviors, including criticizing the wealthier partner’s parenting skills, emotional depth, and commitment to the relationship. These are misguided attempts to reach out for help; sadly, they create even more distance. Meanwhile, the higher earner gradually becomes resentful, especially when the higher earner hates his or her job. 

All of this said, what can we do when these issues surface in our intimate relationships?

  1. For the lower-earning partner, self-confidence is key. Your value goes far beyond money; never let anyone tell you otherwise. As far as practical steps you can take, consider whether you can earn some amount of money to increase your independence. Also, don’t be afraid to raise the issue with your higher-earning power so you can get things out in the open. Do they want to continue supporting you? Ask! Securing a renewed commitment from your higher-earning spouse can help dispel any secret resentments that may have taken root.
  2. For both partners: listen to each other and allow space for a conversation that may last a lifetime. You don’t have to figure everything out right away. The key is not to ignore things to the point that they fester. If there is open dialogue, there is hope.
  3. If one or both partners want to make a change in the division of money and resources, expect an adjustment period. Higher-earning partners may feel disoriented by the increased independence of a partner who goes back to work or increases his or her earnings. Regardless of your position on the scale, know that resistance and fear does not mean lack of love. 

As with most intimacy issues, communication is the cornerstone of managing money dynamics. If both partners have good intentions and truly listen to each other’s perspectives without fear and defensiveness, money and control will rarely impede the relationship’s success.