Money issues are tough in relationships, especially if one person is making significantly more than the other. But how do you support each other through financial ups and downs? Advice columnist Dear Wendy shares her words of wisdom on this tricky situation.
"I have been with my boyfriend for three years and living together for about two years in Los Angeles. He makes a decent income of $70K, which is half of mine, and we plan on getting engaged soon before I hit 30. Recently, he decided that, in the near future, before or after our wedding, he wants to quit his job or go work just part-time for a while (I told him max of two years is my limit) to get more serious about his goal of becoming a screenwriter and to work on making an income from writing. This means that right at the time that we are married and try to have kids, our income will take a hit.
"I have been so excited to get engaged and am suddenly very uncomfortable to marry someone who wants to use me as support. I am not sure if I should be a good partner and support him, even though it makes me feel used, as if he was planning this all along, which he says he wasn't and that writing after work does not give him enough time. I am so confused and not sure if I have wasted three years. We truly love each other and really get along but why am I suddenly scared to marry him?" — Not Interested in Being Used
What readers don't know is that the subject line in your email to me was "I make double my boyfriend's salary," which is interesting because it suggests that it isn't just the idea of your boyfriend quitting his job to focus on writing that bothers you, but the fact that right now your boyfriend doesn't earn as much as you do. That, coupled with your protests of "being used" and not wanting to support him, indicates that you need to do some serious communicating before you talk seriously about getting married.
My 15 things every couple should discuss before getting married is a good starting point. But the two of you need to think about what you individually see, as you imagine your lives five, 10, 15 years from now. Do you want to continue working full-time after you have children? If so, how important is it to you that you have a partner who is equally invested in his career? How important is it that his career be one that is on par with yours, financially? What about your future children? If both parents were to work full-time, what do you envision for child care? Even when kids start school, they still need child care coverage when they're released at 3 p.m. If you had a partner who had a more flexible schedule — like, say, a screenwriter who set his own hours — that might solve the problem of school pickup and afternoon care.
The thing is, when you marry someone and agree to be life partners, you agree to support each other — emotionally, physically, and yes, financially. So to say you don't want to "be a good partner and support" your maybe-future-husband is . . . well, it's an odd choice of phrasing at the very least, and perhaps an indication that you aren't yet prepared for the compromises necessary to maintain a successful marriage. The reality of marriage is that one person never fully supports the other person all the time. Even if we're just talking about finances, in the course of a long marriage, one partner — even one who starts off making double what the other does — could find herself or himself dependent on the other. Jobs are lost and gained. Screenplays are sold. Raises and promotions are offered. Life happens. And even if one partner is the main breadwinner for the entire marriage, it still doesn't mean he or she is the main supporter and the other partner is simply supported. What about domestic support (cooking, cleaning, child care, grocery shopping, etc.)? What about emotional support? Isn't there enormous value in those things? Isn't love itself a valuable currency of its own?
You need to sit down and talk with your boyfriend, and you need to think about the following questions:
1. How do you both define "success" as a writer?
2. How long are both of you willing to give your boyfriend a chance to achieve that success while living on his limited income? What sacrifices would you have to make to live on just one income, and are you willing to make those sacrifices?
3. If he doesn't find the financial success you both agree is necessary by whatever date you choose he needs to achieve it by, what are the next steps? Does he give up his dream of being a screenwriter and find another source of income? If so, what would he do for income? Can he go back to the work he is currently doing? Is there other work he can do that will be meaningful for him? How can he maintain a stable source of income, even if it's a small one, while he writes screenplays, so he may have that income to fall back on and pursue should he decide to throw in the towel on screenwriting?
4. When do you want to have children?
5. How do you plan to care for the children in their early years? (A nanny? Day care? Stay-at-home parent? A combination of those things?)
6. What support do you want from a husband? And what support does your boyfriend want from a wife?
In the end, you have to follow your gut and make choices based on what will make you happy and what fits your long-term life goals. If what you want is to be with someone who will work in a stable industry and whose income will always match yours, then maybe your boyfriend isn't the right match for you. If you want to eventually stay home with young children, then a screenwriter just starting out may not be able to make that dream a reality for you. You have to think about what you value and then prioritize your values and goals. Is it more important to have the emotional support of someone you love, or is it more important to love someone who can financially support you? And are you willing to give up one without the certainty of the other?