By Gwen Rockwood
Three Ways Income Inequality Can Affect a Marriage
Even after almost 20 years of marriage, I still feel weird about it sometimes – the difference between my income as a writer and my husband’s income as a salesperson for a technology company. They’re a bit different, and by “bit” I mean a lot.
I wish I could say we’re both so evolved that the income inequality has never caused friction in our marriage, but I can’t. Especially in the early years, marriage is not immune to the power struggles that money often brings with it.
Here are some of the most common issues income inequality can create in a relationship:
The higher income earner gets a bigger vote (or total control) on money decisions.
If the discrepancy in salary also comes with a discrepancy in power, the person making the lower income often feels inferior, inadequate and resentful.
If you find that one spouse is the only person with approval or veto power when it comes to large (or small) purchases and financial decisions, point out the problem and make a new plan for how money decisions will be decided in a fair and equitable way.
Kate Levinson, author of Emotional Currency, says that “…each time the underearner feels disempowered, it builds a brick of resentment.”
The person with the higher income feels trapped.
Often, the main breadwinner feels “stuck” because the family’s well-being is more dependent on his or her income.
I’ve seen this play out in my own home. When I’m working as a freelance writer, it’s easier for me to pick and choose my projects based on the nature of the work and the client. If a project comes with a nightmare client, I can say “no,” with the assurance that the paycheck from that one project won’t make or break our ability to pay the mortgage.
But there have been times when my husband has endured months or years with a nightmare boss, knowing he couldn’t simply quit without causing a major financial strain for the whole family.
Levinson points out, “Animosity can arise if you feel like you’re keeping everyone else afloat.”
There’s a “chore inequality” at home, too.
Sometimes income inequality manifests itself in the way things get done (or not done) at home. If both spouses work the same number of hours, but one of them brings home twice the salary as the other spouse, that doesn’t mean the spouse earning less should do all or a majority of the housework.
A spouse with a career as a social worker shouldn’t feel like she also needs to serve as the family maid to make up for the fact that she doesn’t make as much money as her brain surgeon husband. (The world needs social workers as much as it needs brain surgeons.)
If one spouse works fewer hours than the other, however, it might make sense for that person to do a bigger portion of the housework because of his or her time availability. It’s a decision the couple should make together as they decide how to “divide and conquer.”
Lastly, money experts and couples therapists say it’s important for couples to view every financial move from a team approach. That being said, it also makes sense for each spouse to have a set amount of “fun money” that is theirs to spend as they wish each month, without feeling guilty and without feeling the need to get approval from the other spouse.
As my husband and I have learned after two decades of pooling our money, it’s not about who earns what, it’s about how we manage that money together for the good of the family.