Jordan, 28, is an accountant who lives in Boston. She’s always been careful with money (it’s her job, after all), and just finished paying off her student loans. She’s been single for a while but recently met a guy — a Ph.D. student who plans to be a music teacher — who she really likes. As they’re getting more serious, Jordan is starting to face the uncomfortable fact that she’s squeamish about his earning potential. She knows that this is unfair and even sexist, but when she’s honest with herself, she’s always envisioned a partner who’s her financial equal. Jordan has never planned to rely on a spouse financially, but she didn’t plan to be a breadwinner, either. She’s pretty sure that a lot of her friends feel the same way, but they don’t talk about it — although most of them tend to date guys who make more money than they do.
Speaking of which, some of Jordan’s friends recently planned a weekend trip away to Cape Cod. She knew it would be tough for her boyfriend to swing it financially, so she didn’t invite him. The experience made her think about their future. It worries her that she’s prioritizing money over her genuine feelings for this guy, but at the same time, she wants someone who can share the life that she’s built for herself. How can she reconcile this? Should she nip this relationship in the bud, or figure out how to change her attitude?
Many women in our generation wind up in a weird dance with money and relationships: We’re proud of what we earn, and want a partner who can enjoy it with us — while holding their own. “It’s not the narrative where you’re waiting around for prince charming to swoop in on a white horse,” says Maggie Baker, a psychologist, financial therapist, and author of Crazy About Money: How Emotions Confuse Our Money Choices and What to Do About It. “It’s more that a woman is strong and independent, and she wants a partner who can keep up.”
Jordan, part of your discomfort might stem from an awareness that if your roles were reversed (say, you were bound for academia, and he was the one with the heftier paycheck), no one would bat an eye. And statistically, you’re right: Studies reveal a consistent gender gap between financial expectations for potential partners — which, on a positive note, means you aren’t alone. One survey found that 55 percent of women would consider cutting off a relationship if their partner was heavily in debt, compared to 37 percent of men. Meanwhile, men are much less likely than women to consider a person’s future earning potential when deciding to date them; when asked if it would be a factor, 32 percent of men answered “no,” compared to just 18 percent of women, according to a survey by SoFi.
This clash of double standards could be explained by the economic imbalances that women put up with as a matter of course — the gender wage gap, higher health-care costs, and the “marriage penalty” — not to mention lingering societal views of men as providers and women as caretakers. However, most ambitious, self-sufficient women aren’t looking for a man to support them, and they certainly don’t want to be perceived as money-focused or opportunistic when it comes to dating — hence your sense of guilt.
My friend Anna, a 34-year-old writer, always made a point to offer to split the bill on dates purely to show that she wasn’t “one of those girls who only goes out with guys in a certain socioeconomic class,” as she puts it. “I always thought it was important to project that I was equal, even when I knew he made a lot more money than I did.” A few months ago, she started seeing someone more seriously, and recently found out that he doesn’t make quite as high a salary as she thought. “I don’t want to say I was disappointed,” she says. “But I definitely had conflicting feelings. I consider myself an independent person, and I don’t want anybody to take care of me — but maybe a part of me wants to have the option? That sounds awful.”
Still, she can’t help but second-guess their future. “I really like him, but it made me wonder — if we wind up together, will we have enough? Are we going to be able to keep living in New York? Could we raise kids? Will we ever be able to retire?”
Intellectually, Anna knows it’s unfair to react this way, but emotionally, it’s hard to shake the deep roots of social conditioning — or at least the hope that their combined incomes would lead to bigger possibilities. “One of my friends has always said, ‘I don’t want to date a photographer or a writer, because they don’t have health insurance.’ And maybe that rigidity closes her off to great people — or maybe she’s just realistic about what she wants. I don’t know.”
Some of this uncertainty stems from the lack of precedence; many young professional women just don’t have much of a model to go on. “It’s all in the last generation or so that most women have been able to take this stance and say, ‘I only want to be with a man who can contribute financially in a way that’s equal to me,’” says Baker. “It took us a long time to get here, and I’m thrilled to see it, but it’s still relatively new.” Progress isn’t linear, either. “I think a lot of young women are caught between two value systems, or two cultural zeitgeists, and it’s very confusing. You want someone who’s your financial equal, but can also provide security,” she continues. In other words, it’s not that you want to have your cake and eat it, too; it’s that you want to have your cake and know that more is available, in a pinch. And at the very least, you don’t want to split your hard-won cake with someone else.
Elizabeth, an L.A.-based business consultant, got divorced in her early 30s and now only dates men who, as she puts it, “have their shit together.” While her ex-husband’s money troubles were only part of what caused the marriage to sour, they deeply affected her. “I’m very organized about money, and with my ex, our finances got to a point where I felt unsafe in the relationship. That was my own issue, not his, but it was exhausting for both of us,” she says. “Every time he wanted to buy something large, he felt like he had to ask me about it, and it felt like I had a child, not a partner.”
She won’t make that mistake again. “It isn’t a topic I come out of the gate with on a first date, but if you pay attention, your gut will tell you if alarm bells go off with a guy’s spending habits,” she says. Elizabeth isn’t looking for a guy with a lot of money, necessarily: “I dated a wealthy guy a while ago, and the way that he spent money without a second thought was actually very stressful to me,” she adds. “Instead, I want someone organized, and who’s on the same page as me. To me, money is freedom — it’s a path to doing as I choose...To tie yourself to someone with debt, or bad spending habits, or who doesn’t understand credit—that isn’t about ruining my financial situation; that’s about taking away my freedom. It ruins the life I’ve made for myself. When you combine your life with somebody, you want it to get bigger and better, because you’re both able to bring great things to the table, including the money you make.”
In your case, Jordan, it’s important to know the difference between what you want, personally, and the amorphous societal expectations that cause us to hold ourselves and our relationships up to impossible (and sometimes outdated) archetypes. “Historically, a man’s attractiveness is often tied to his ability to provide, and money constantly brings up comparisons,” says Baker. “Unlike many aspects of relationships, money is very concrete, so it’s an easy medium for sizing yourself up to others.” That’s probably why this weekend trip touched a nerve — it made you realize where your relationship could fall short, in measurable terms, and stoked fears of what that might imply going forward. Will you have to leave him behind every time you and your friends do something moderately pricey? Will that really bother you?
“Even though women are becoming more powerful financially, many of us don’t have a strong concept of a ‘financial self,’” explains Baker. Whereas men are raised to identify with money as part of their role in society, women’s relationships to wealth are usually fuzzier (or in Baker’s words, “inchoate”). “For many women, feelings and attitudes about money are very remote. We haven’t taken ownership of them. And for that reason, money can cause a lot of misplaced anxiety, and corresponding guilt, even if you’re very good with money in reality.” In terms of the “bigger and better” partnership that Elizabeth mentioned — Jordan, what does yours look like? Baker recommends talking this through with friends, older mentors you trust, or even a coach or therapist.
And awkward though it may be, you owe it to yourself to put your concerns about your relationship out in the open. “My speculation is that you’re feeling ashamed because you’re thinking, ‘I like him, and I shouldn’t be wanting him to change just so we can live a certain way,’ especially if you haven’t talked to him about it,” continues Baker. “And that’s completely understandable. If I were in your position, I’d be apprehensive about talking to him about this, because it’ll hurt his feelings! It could be humiliating for him to know that he’s not good enough for you. It’s extremely delicate.”
How to start? “I would tell him how badly you feel about what you’re thinking, and be forthcoming about the guilt and shame that’s associated with it, but also remind him of where you’re coming from. You could say, ‘I think about money a lot, because of my job and how I’m wired, and I’m having a hard time sharing my thoughts because I don’t want to hurt you and I’m afraid I might.’ And if he’s a good guy, he’ll say, ‘You need to tell me, because if we can’t be honest, what kind of relationship are we having anyway?’ And he’ll be nervous and scared, but he’ll understand the importance of the conversation.”