Income Disparity Makes Me Uncomfortable

Dear Robin:

My boyfriend and I have been together for just under a year.  We live together and share housing costs equally.  After a few months of dating he moved into my apartment but he is in the process of buying a house and he wants my child and I to move with him.  Neither of us want more children or care particularly about remarriage.

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My problem?  He makes more money than I do and unlike me is debt-free.

He tends to foot the bill when we eat out, travel, shop, etc — not that I expect or rely on him to do so. I consider myself a feminist and firmly believe all women should seek economic independence — while I’m paying all my own bills, I still feel like a guilty hypocrite every time he treats me to anything.

I always thank him for all that he does and I’m physically & emotionally present when he comes home after a long day, but I’m worried I ought to have more to offer.

We both work full-time, we both cook, we both do housework, we both care for the kids (shared with our ex-spouses who are local and present) and while I adore our egalitarian relationship, it also means there is not a single area where I can bring something to the table he doesn’t already have or do.

I know he’s not “keeping score,” but what more should I be doing in order to make an economic contribution to the household, demonstrate my worth, and express my gratitude to him, without needing to match him in dollars spent? Or do I just swallow my pride, enjoy being “provided for,” and ignore the ideological conflict I’m feeling?

Thank you,

Isabel 

Dear Isabel:

Do you often go about courting trouble?  

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I find your concern about income equity very noble but largely unwarranted.  Before I scold you for being paranoid, however, I’d like to commend you.

Too many women seek out men based upon little more than their economic station and what they perceive these men can do for them.  I see this phenomenon all the time and it does not make for a happy long-term relationship.  See: Oregon’s last Governor and most of the women at my health club.

You, on the other hand, are far too sensitive, but I think I know why.

You aren’t going to like my deeper analysis so I’ll give you my practical advice first in a numbered list below, then I’ll lower the boom and duck.  Since I am writing this from an undisclosed location in Miami, I know you can’t find me to smack the iPad out of my sweaty hands and tell me I’m wrong.

Regarding your day-to-day score keeping (remember, you worry about him keeping score and yet you are doing it yourself), here are a few ideas that may settle your irrational anxiety:

1. Talk to him about your conflicted feelings and inquire whether this is bothering him too.  I’m going to bet he will tell you it hasn’t even crossed his mind.

2. Offer to pay the bill when you can.  He may try to fight you on this if he is particularly old-fashioned and derives a sense of pride for treating you, but I’d insist and remind him it’s 2015.

3. If you cannot rid yourself of this guilt, consider turning him down.  Go out to dinner less and when you do, split the bill down the middle.  Don’t travel unless you can afford it and again, split the costs equally.

Now for the rest:

SLOW DOWN, SISTER!

As you know, I had to cut your letter by about 400 words and it was still really long.  It was filled with anguished questioning of your self-worth, your concerns about long-term resentment, and your general high level of angst about this income differential, which in the larger scheme of things isn’t much of one at all.

While you may be experiencing some valid trepidation regarding your income disparity, I think the basis of your general anxiety and preseveration is a more general (and much more understandable) reaction to the relationship itself, not the money.

You may well indeed have a fantastic thing going, but my goodness you went there quickly, especially given that there are children involved.  Cohabitation after only a few months is a risky proposition in the best of circumstances, but blending families when you haven’t known each other for more than about twenty minutes is ill-advised.

I do not mean to imply this relationship will not be succesful, because you sound like two lovely people with smart financial skills and a deep and abiding respect and admiration for one another. Mr. Patience and Understanding and I met and fell in love in very short order.  But we didn’t move in together until we were dead certain we were going to spend the rest of our lives together.

I suspect your overwhelming concerns about money, your pro-rata “contributions” and the potential for his future resentment of you may in part be based upon a deep and niggling unacknowledged fear you are moving too quickly in this relationship.

What’s done is done: you live together and it seems to be working out well, but I caution you against moving in with him should he purchase a home unless the two of you are making a long-term commitment to each other and buying the home together.

POTENTIAL PROBLEMS

You live in a state (redacted) in which you will have no rights to increased value in the home should your relationship fail and you need to move on, regardless of your contribution to its equity.

In addition, I can tell you from personal experience that living in someone else’s home without ownership is awkward for each party and can cause problems.  Sharing an apartment is one thing, but living in a purchased home is quite another.

You don’t want you and your child to feel like guests in this new home and you don’t want him to view you as a tenant, so don’t pack your bags until you are committed to sharing ownership of the home and the rest of your lives together.

And don’t worry so much!

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Lulu

    “You don’t want you and your child to feel like guests in this new home and you don’t want him to view you as a tenant, so don’t pack your bags until you are committed to sharing ownership of the home and the rest of your lives together.”

    Spot on, Robin!

    It does sound like the disparity isn’t so great that they can’t even consider splitting things down the middle, so it definitely doesn’t seem like too big a deal. At some point, a disparity can be that great, and for many good reasons (e.g. love of a poor-paying line of work, major promotions that send a partner’s income through the roof, etc.) – does she think every person at the low end of a situation like that should feel badly..?? Of course not.

    One other thought for her – I’ve been in a relationship with someone who’s wage was much lower than mine, and I was glad I heard about one other version of “fair”: splitting all costs by % of income contributed so that each partner is left with the same % as disposable income. One person makes $100k while the other makes $50k? Split all costs 2/3:1/3 (e.g. split $1,500 rent so that $1,000 paid by the wealthier partner, $500 by the poorer). It really seems much more fair that splitting everything 50/50 when that’d leave the poorer with almost nothing left over. Just a thought…

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