Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to email@example.com.
My husband and I fight about money all of the time. When we first got together he made more money than me by quite a lot. He loved to treat me and I let him. Then we got married, had kids, and I was a stay-at-home mom since that made the most sense, but now my kids are in school and I went back to work using my engineering degree. I love my new job and I’m making good money. In fact, I’m now making a lot more than my husband, who had a few career setbacks and is now starting over at an entry-level position at a new firm. He has more time to spend at home and he has started doing a lot more, like taking the kids to school and cooking dinner.
While he was the breadwinner, I deferred to him a lot. I let him have the final say over how and when we spent our money, but now that I’m the breadwinner he won’t let me have the same power over our money. He fights me on everything I want to spend money on, like shoes, calling it “unnecessary” while I said nothing when he used to spend thousands of dollars on golf clubs and other luxury items. I want my marriage to work but his hypocrisy is driving me nuts! How do I get him to see that he’s being unfair? Any talking points would be greatly appreciated.
Dear Money Maker,
OK, this is a situation where one asshole + another asshole = bad marriage. The thing we need to do is to remove at least one asshole from the situation. Seeing as the only person you can control is yourself, my advice is: Stop being such an asshole about money.
This probably isn’t the advice you were hoping for, and may strike you as being incredibly unfair, and you’re not wrong. It is unfair. But you’re an adult, in a marriage, so making things work and making things fair are usually two different things.
I personally rail against the idea that money bestows personal value. I don’t think that someone who makes a lot money necessarily has better ideas, or impulses, or goals than someone who doesn’t make a lot of money. I’m not a Puritan, so I don’t think that money is granted to the good and withheld from the wicked. I see money as necessary but only helpful up until the point where it’s not.
Why are you so set on perpetuating the bullshit that the person who makes the most money has the most power? Why are you trying to keep up the farce that whoever makes the money has the most value? My guess is that you spent a long time in your relationship feeling small. You enjoyed your husband spending money on you at the beginning, but then in the middle you didn’t enjoy the level of control your husband had over your finances. You deferred to him as an act of loving sacrifice, as part of a deal you made: money = power, so you let him have the power as long as he had the money. Now that you have the money you want the power, and the fact that he’s not handing over the power is driving you crazy.
Your husband was an ass in the past and is being a hypocrite now. You’re right, of course you’re right, but you have to realize that in being right you’re also being as big of an ass as your husband was in the past.
Here’s a talking point: Are you and your husband partners or competitors?
Here’s another talking point: Do you want to be right or do you want to be married?
Remember how you felt when your husband used to make decrees about how you guys were spending “his” money? Why do you want to pay that forward?
When my parents were newly married, my mother interrogated my father about spending. “What would you do if I went out and bought a nice dress that cost a lot of money?” My father’s answer, “Well, you know how much money we have so if you think we can afford it then I guess we can,” still astounds me. He was saying that all money is our money and you’re my partner so I trust you to not be a dick about it. I trust you, my wife, to be a rational, healthy adult. I trust you not to screw us.
Am I asking you to be a better person than your husband? Yep. Is that fair? Nope. But welcome to a marriage, long-term relationships, and being an adult. Being an adult means that sometimes you gotta make the world you want to live in.
When you stayed at home, it was your unpaid labor that allowed your husband to earn the high salary that he did. He wouldn’t have been able to work such long hours, or have so much discretionary spending, if he had had to pay for child care, house cleaning, and meal preparation. Do you know that a stay-at-home spouse would make over $100,000 a year if they were paid market rate for their services?
Now your life has changed and it’s your husband’s unpaid labor that is allowing you to thrive in your career. So show him the appreciation you never received. I’m asking you to treat him the way you wish he had treated you. I’m asking you to show your husband grace. Winning this argument isn’t going to improve your marriage — it will only make your husband fold into himself, feel unappreciated, and long for a day when the tables turn and he can once against assert monetary authority. I’m saying stop trying to win this bullshit seesaw game and instead just burn the fucking seesaw to the ground.
Now, I totally understand if you are still seething after being treated a second-class member in your marriage for so many years, and getting an apology from your husband would likely help you to feel better. If, after you stop trying to wield money like a weapon, he’s still unwilling to apologize, show him this column, specifically this part:
Hey, dude — the way you’re feeling right now where you work so hard but your contributions don’t matter because they don’t hand out paychecks for picking up the kids and meanwhile your wife is acting like she’s God gift because she got a few extra zeros in her check is both total bullshit and also THE SAME WAY YOUR WIFE FELT FOR YEARS. The push back you’re getting from her right now is the manifestation of suppressed rage and also some glee because you guys had a deal: money = power, so now that she has the money she’d also like the power please but all of a sudden you want everything to be all egalitarian because now it’s your ass that’s being asked to support the purchase of nonsense luxury items and because it doesn’t feel good to be dictated to by your partner. Your wife is wrong in the present but in order for that to be true you also have to admit that you were wrong in the past. Apologize to your wife for not valuing her contributions all those years. Apologize, and mean it, and she’ll probably not only be a lot easier to live with but will also likely stop trying so hard to buy stupid expensive shoes.
Back to you, Money Maker: This is the marriage you have and this is the marriage you want to make work. So be the person you wish your husband had been for all of those years. Treat the money you make as your money, as in your money plural, as in both of yours. You really want to hear that your husband was wrong all those years and shouldn’t have used money as a cudgel, especially now since he won’t accept you doing to same and YOU’RE SUPER DUPER ALL CAPS RIGHT. But that and $4.50 will get you a Pumpkin Spice Latte. Who cares that you’re right? You don’t need to be right, you need a functioning marriage.
For both of you: Start over, start fresh. Apologize to each other. Decide that all work is valued, both partners are valued, and all money belongs to everyone. Change the equation and save your marriage.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.