By Molly Triffin
When Ali Green* and her husband, Craig, met, she was a recent grad earning $28,000 a year as a newspaper columnist, and he was a chef pulling in $50,000.
But before long, Ali’s paycheck started to climb—moving well past Craig’s.
In 2012 she got a huge promotion and began raking in $90,000 a year. The income gap between them had turned into a chasm—and it was taking a serious toll on their relationship.
“He’d always been excited whenever I got a salary boost, but now I noticed there was an edge to his comments,” Ali, 34, says. “Once, he mentioned that if we weren’t together, he’d have to live with four people in a studio. He said it jokingly, but there was tension.”
And her salary has only continued to climb—she now owns an SEO consulting company—while 33-year-old Craig’s earning potential is limited.
“He makes one third of what I make now, and will often compare us, griping that even though he works long hours, he earns a fraction of what I do,” Ali says.
“When there’s a big difference between a couple, the inequality can threaten to erode your bond, unless you address it head on,” says psychotherapist Kate Levinson, Ph.D., author of “Emotional Currency.” “Unfortunately, we don’t like to acknowledge that money influences our intimate relationships—it’s like a hidden operating system whose presence is undetected, but has the potential to influence everything.”
The need to constantly compare salaries isn’t the only issue that can creep into a relationship. With the help of relationship and money pros, we dig into four common dilemmas that couples often face when the digits on their paychecks don’t align.
Dilemma #1: The High Earner Makes Unilateral Money Decisions
Joseph Morgan*, 34, a real estate investor who makes five times as much as his freelance writer wife, Jenny, 34, once purchased pricey concert tickets for them and two friends. When Jenny asked whether their friends had paid him back, he told her that he’d never asked them.
“I was annoyed that she was making such a big deal about it,” Joseph says. “So I replied, ‘Why do you care how I spend my money?'”
Jenny then asked if he believed that she shouldn’t have a say in such situations because he made more money.
“I realized that she was right, and apologized on the spot,” Joseph says.
While the Morgans addressed their power imbalance head on, many couples either avoid the matter—or may not even realize it exists.
“We often make tiny bargains that are largely unconscious,” Levinson explains. “But each time the underearner feels disempowered, it builds a brick of resentment.”
If you feel like your voice is being ignored—or perhaps you’re the one taking advantage of the extra digits on your paycheck through power plays—Levinson suggests jotting down your thoughts about a recent decision-making scenario like the one the Morgans had.
And before you roll your eyes at the idea, consider that numerous studies have shown that expressing your emotions on paper can help you better process them.
“Ask yourself how the influence of money played out in the situation,” Levinson says. “The goal is to really shine a light on the problem, so you can begin to disentangle it.”
So let’s say your partner is footing the bill for the family vacation—and feels the destination is his decision to make. Even though you’d rather go to the sea than the mountains, you give in and Tahoe it is.
Once you’ve had time to put pen to paper to reflect on how finances factored into the outcome, then broach the topic with your partner. “And be sure to harness an attitude of curiosity, rather than confrontation,” Levinson says.
You may have to go through this exercise a few times before the real equity lessons seep in, says Levinson, but in time, whenever you have a difference of opinion, you’ll likely both be more cognizant of how money may be affecting your dynamic.
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Dilemma #2: One Person Ends Up Paying All the Bills
When it comes to managing household finances, it isn’t just the breadwinner who’s guilty of missing the big financial picture.
“One of the most common issues I see is that the person who earns less views the breadwinner’s income as ‘our money,’ but considers their own salary ‘their money,’ ” says Deborah Price, author of “The Heart of Money. “If left unmanaged, this attitude can start to fracture the relationship.”
One culprit, say our experts, is a sense of entitlement. The underearner may feel jealous and think that they shouldn’t be expected to pitch in, since their partner makes so much more. Or the non-contributor may be doing it because they feel financially vulnerable, and hoarding their own cash gives them a sense of security.
Well, it’s not that simple. Understanding what’s driving the behavior is the first step toward changing it. But it can take a long time to overhaul deep-rooted patterns, so start by tackling the problem from a more practical place.
One strategy, says Price, is to have the lower earner manage the household budget—and help decide who’s going to pay for what.
“Often, [individuals who exhibit this behavior] tend to be avoidant about financial matters,” Price says. “But in order to move from a place of helplessness to empowerment, you need to be knowledgeable about money.”
In the Green household, for example, Craig keeps track of the family’s bottom line, paying bills and even depositing Ali’s paychecks. “It allows him to take responsibility and have a more equal say,” Ali explains.
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Dilemma #3: The Breadwinner Feels Burdened—and Resentful
For breadwinners, feeling like they are responsible for supporting the whole family can be overwhelming.
“Animosity can arise if you start to feel like you’re keeping everybody else afloat,” Levinson says.
It’s a sentiment that certainly resonates with Ali.
“A couple of years ago, I was stuck in a job I hated, but I couldn’t leave because we had a mortgage,” Ali says. “While Craig was supportive, he also reminded me that we needed to make a certain income. The responsibility is always hanging over my head. If I lose my job, we’re screwed. If he loses his, it’s just a blip.”
Ali’s annoyance over Craig’s paycheck came to a head when they were forced to move because they couldn’t afford the cost of living in their area.
“I felt frustrated knowing that if he made as much as I did, we could send our kid to a better day care, and we wouldn’t have to leave this place that we loved,” she says.
If you’re in this predicament, one thing that can help diffuse your anger is to recognize there are more ways to contribute than simply opening a wallet.
Perhaps your partner supports you emotionally, keeps the household running smoothly, or takes care of time-consuming projects such as vacation planning and home repairs. So try to shift your focus from how they fall short fiscally to where they excel in other areas.
And whatever you do, don’t just sit there seething.
“Talking about your worries with your partner can bring some comfort,” Levinson says. “Your spouse might be limited in terms of how much they can contribute financially, but at least you can split the emotional load.”
You can also discuss reworking your current arrangement. “Even if you came to an agreement when one person was making more in the beginning of your relationship, you aren’t beholden to that forever,” Price points out.
One way to bring more balance to the equation is to periodically revisit your household budget—especially when one of you changes jobs or nabs a raise or promotion—by setting ongoing monthly money meetings.
Dilemma #4: One Person Isn’t Pulling Their Weight … at Home
Another common issue that can creep up for couples with uneven income situations: The high earner skips out on household cleanup detail and child care duties.
Just take it from Monica Miller*, a 26-year-old entrepreneur in Cheyenne, Wyoming, who’s still building her business and only makes several hundred dollars a month—compared to her engineer husband’s $35,000 salary.
“Even though I’m busy working during the day, the brunt of household chores falls on me,” Monica says. “At times I feel taken advantage of, like a maid instead of a wife.”
According to Price, this imbalance often manifests when the underearner feels guilty about their lack of earning power. “They overcompensate by pitching in more around the house, but may end up doing the equivalent of two jobs,” she says.
Miller can relate.
“I sometimes feel like a burden to my husband,” she says. “I want to put money on the table, too—and when I can’t, I get frustrated. Even though my husband is very kind, I feel like I’m failing him and not showing him my true worth.”
Price’s advice to Miller? Resist the urge to make up for the lack of zeroes in your paycheck by overdoing it on the home front.
While things don’t necessarily have to be split down the middle, she says, both of you should be doing a reasonable amount respective to your other obligations.
To get back on even footing, tell your partner, “I’ve been feeling stressed out lately about managing things. Can we talk about how to divide and conquer a bit better?”
Chances are, your spouse isn’t upset that you’re not pulling your weight financially—and simply hearing them say so can help you devise a more equal household workload plan.
Ultimately, regardless of your unique income dilemma, it all comes down (surprise! surprise!) to communication, which can help minimize the fiscal gulf in any relationship.
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*Names have been changed.