• Thu, Aug 11 2011

Ms. Monogamy: How To Avoid‘Til Debt Do Us Part…

The memory is so vivid it makes my head hurt. I’m curled up on the bathroom floor, Elizabeth Gilbert-style with tears and snot streaming down my face and the only word running through my mind is: “worthless.” I have no real job, very little money and I feel utterly worthless. Making the whole situation worse is the fact that I’m getting married in a couple of months and lately I’ve been feeling that my fiancé is starting to view me as worthless, too.

These feelings weren’t created in a vacuum. When we met, I was law school-bound and driven. My husband didn’t consciously wish for a partner with serious earning potential, but he didn’t exactly hunt high and low for a girl with no idea what career she wanted and would be adrift and in debt for the foreseeable future. His own complicated relationship with money had been casting a periodic cloudiness over his heartfelt support of me and my quest to find myself a purpose that would provide a paycheck.

And so there was a great deal of sadness, frustration and self-hate over what? Money. Yes, there were deeper issues tangled up with it, but the bottom line was that I didn’t have any money and therefore felt worth less. Less than I “should” be. Less than Ryan deserved. Less than I had envisioned for myself. Money, or the lack thereof, had the power to beat me down to that bathroom floor.

Some would say that an inanimate object like money can only wield the power that you assign it. In theory, I agree, but I would argue that money, especially in the context of a relationship, is so insidious and permeating that it’s in a category by itself. It’s the third person in every monogamous relationship—the one who exists just to fuck with both of you.

I’d like to sit here and tell you that, six years removed from the bathroom floor, my husband and I have the sticky money problems all worked out, but I don’t like to lie. We do, however, have a deeply nuanced understanding of our own respective feelings towards the green stuff and we’re aware of how they impact our joint decisions, fears and plans.

Developing this understanding was a concerted and necessary effort for each of us. I would say the process began in earnest when Ryan, unprompted and randomly as we were crossing the street one day, suggested we pop into the bank to add my name to his account. This was post-bathroom floor and even post-wedding, which is a little crazy to me now as I sit here thinking about it. We got married without first sharing a bank account?! Can that be right?

Yep. It’s a pretty strong indication of how unclear we both were about our financial expectations of one another. Ryan was still trying to adjust to his surprise role as sole breadwinner and I was desperately clinging to some half-belief that I’d figure out my work situation and suddenly find a way to make money and enjoy my job (an elusive combination that had so far seemed impossible). Because we were both so ambivalent towards our respective financial roles, we just didn’t talk about them. It was our biggest mistake.

But once we had a shiny new checkbook with both of our names on every check, that changed. Ryan would still make off-handed comments about the fact that I wasn’t actually contributing to the account, but it gave me the opportunity to finally tell him just how shitty those words made me feel. Knowing that he wanted to share his financial life with me, I was empowered to explain how thankful I was that he was willing to support me, but also how hurt I was that the decision didn’t come easily to him. I was disappointed in myself as it was and really didn’t need to hear from him about my financial shortcomings. It helped him to hear me say that I never intended to place the earning burden on his shoulders alone and that I didn’t expect, or want, our dynamic to remain that way forever.

Gosh, it sounds so simple now. We had a few open, loving conversations about money, and whaddya know? That area of our relationship began to improve. But it was the opposite of simple at the time because when two people come together, both bringing their mixed-up history with money into the game, there’s just nothing simple about it.

So take some time to get in touch with your own complicated feelings about money and know, to your core, that money does not define you. It does not determine your worth. It’s just this thing that comes in and out of your life, providing both incredible opportunity and tremendous anxiety. Fight its relationship-corrupting powers with a unified front; that is to say, if you don’t have one already, open a joint bank account. Get a credit card in both of your names. Agree to pay off each other’s debt. Discuss large expenditures but also allow one another a certain amount of financial autonomy. You have to believe that “what’s mine is yours.” It’s the only way.

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  • Brooke

    Ugh. Always the dreaded topic; whether in a married relationship, dating or friendship. Thanks for encouraging advice to engage in that conversation earlier! Love the column.