As a native Washingtonian, I’ve seen this city change a lot since I was a kid. For a variety of reasons, over the years we’ve gone from being a semi-sleepy town to a city with a lot of high rollers.
But not everyone earns a lot of money in Washington DC. And what happens when a high earner gets together with a not-so-high earner? What do you do when you and your significant other have a significant income disparity?
So many couples struggle with this issue–and it certainly isn’t limited to residents of Washington DC! Some attempt to solve it by adopting a standard of living that both can afford, while in other relationships, the partner who earns more money subsidizes joint expenses. Of course, both approaches have drawbacks.
Tangled up around money and looking for some useful pointers? Read this letter to my Washington Blade advice column, and my response.
As a lawyer, I* work very long hours and am generously compensated. I like to make the most of the little free time I have, traveling when I can get away, going to theater, enjoying dinners out, and yes, hiring a cleaning person so that I don’t have to dust, vacuum and scrub the toilet.
Elissa, my girlfriend of two years, works in non-profit and earns a much smaller salary and we frequently argue about money. She cannot pay half of everything we do together and is extremely uncomfortable with my paying for her, which she says is too much like a traditional relationship.
I don’t want to skip doing things she can’t afford, because then we wouldn’t do much. And I certainly don’t want to go on vacation alone. It’s in no way a financial imposition for me to pay “her share.” The way I see it, what’s mine is hers.
Despite my attitude, Elissa feels like we have a power imbalance and this makes it hard for me to propose doing anything fun that costs money. Even having a cleaning person has become a bone of contention. She doesn’t want to pay, says she can do the cleaning herself, but then I feel she is like the maid.
We’ve talked about splitting expenses based on income but to me, this feels like nickel-and-diming everything and she says she feels inadequate contributing only 20 percent.
What’s the best way to deal with income inequality in a relationship?
The first thing to consider is whether you do or don’t want to commit to each other. You’ve been dating for two years. Unless you want to be together long term, there’s no point figuring out how to share your resources.
If the two of you do decide to commit, view this conflict as an opportunity to learn how to collaborate on sharing your lives. Don’t get too hung up on the money per se. Your real task is to figure out how to effectively deal with your differences. Even if you both were on the same page regarding finances, you would eventually run into some major disagreements that you would have to find a way to address as a couple.
I can’t give you a precise roadmap for how to move forward; that’s for you to discover. But I can suggest some important points to consider:
First, ask yourselves what money means to each of you. It sounds like you both may be seeing it as the only resource of value brought to the relationship. How did you learn to give so much weight to money? My suggestion is that you think together about what other valuable contributions each of you is making to your couple.
Second, examine your assumptions. Questions for Elissa to consider: Do you have some solid reason not to emulate any aspect of a traditional relationship? What is inherently wrong with a relationship structure where one person largely supports the other financially? And what would it take for you to feel more of an equal in this relationship? My hunch is that your feeling “one down” is about more than your income.
Questions for the letter writer: Why do you see Elissa’s contribution of cleaning your shared home as negative rather than something she is gladly doing for both of you? Are there other ways she cares for the two of you that you may be discounting?
You are framing this conflict as Elissa’s unwillingness to happily join you in living a lush life. But is it possible that Elissa doesn’t enjoy the same lifestyle you do? That she might rather use her resources for things other than extravagant dinners or travel adventures? If so, your joint challenge will be to figure out together how to live in a way that honors both your values.
*All names and identifying details altered in this article.