My husband left his family and job in Europe to live with me in D.C. in 2018. It took him almost a year to find work here, and during that time he was financially dependent on me. Now that he has found a good job, he says he wants to rebuild his savings, so he still isn’t contributing equally to our household expenses. We’re fortunate enough to live in a home that belongs to my parents (they’re retired and live elsewhere), so we’re fine financially, and I know that we’re very lucky in that regard. But it is hurtful to me that he doesn’t even acknowledge the financial support that I’ve provided. He says he wants to save, but then he uses our shared credit card to go shopping and wants to eat at restaurants all the time. Still, I also know that he sacrificed a lot to leave his career abroad and be with me here. I think the gender dynamic makes things extra complicated, in that he doesn’t want to talk about money at all, maybe out of pride. How can we start communicating about this, and how can I get him to pitch in more? Also, what should I do about this resentment I’m starting to feel toward him regarding this financial imbalance?
This sounds very thorny, and you’re right to address it. Your husband must be frustrated, too. I’m sure he knows, on some level, that you’re uncomfortable with paying for everything and wishes things were different. If I had to guess, the reason he’s avoiding the topic (and not acknowledging your support) is not because he wants to keep riding the gravy train. It’s more likely that he wants to keep acting like everything is “normal” until he can figure out a better solution — and he hasn’t yet. But I can’t read his mind, and neither can you. Which is why you’ll have to ask him for yourself.
But first, don’t underestimate how deeply terrifying it can be to talk about money, often for reasons we don’t fully understand. I avoided sharing expenses with my husband for years after we moved in together, claiming that it was just “easier” to keep things separate. But it was actually because I assumed he would be horrified by my spending habits and think I was a profligate fool. Now that I’ve interviewed countless people about their money, I’ve realized that almost everyone thinks they’re managing it wrong — or at least that other people are doing it better. In that sense, we all have more in common, financially, than we think.
When my husband and I finally did have a conversation about sharing costs for “big” stuff going forward, like eventually buying a home, I was so nervous that I had to wipe my sweaty palms on our couch. Then I remembered a trick that one of my friends — who also happens to be a therapist — told me about tough conversations, which is to get ahead of the awkwardness by pointing it out. I mumbled something like, “I know this sounds weird, but talking about this is nerve-racking and I’m really anxious right now.” (Trust me, it sounded just as pathetic out loud as it looks written here.)
But it also worked. The vibe softened. Instead of launching straight into the brass tacks of our monthly expenses, which probably would have made me feel dumb and defensive, we wound up talking about some of our fears (I worried he’d think I was careless, he fretted about taxes, etc.). We asked each other questions. Things felt more open and empathetic. And then we figured out a spreadsheet system for shared costs, a version of which we still use today, several years later.
To figure out how you might go about finding similar tools, I called Judith Stern Peck, a therapist, author of the book Money and Meaning, and director of the Ackerman Institute’s Money and Family Life Project. Her first recommendation: to zoom out before you get into the numbers. “Take a more macro view of your future together,” she says. The primary goal, for now, is to figure out how to talk about money, not how you’ll convince him to pony up for his half of dinner (although you will get to that later).
Peck recommends asking yourselves the following questions: “How do we want to shape the next five years of our life? What would that look like? What are the values that will inform the shape of that life?” And then, of course: “How will we finance that life?” From there, you can get into the details, but let the big picture breathe a little bit first.
Meanwhile, you need to shift the conversation out of your head. “You’re having a discussion with yourself about how he owes you this for that thing you did for him,” Peck says. “But he probably doesn’t see it the same way.” Instead of assuming you know the rationale behind his decisions, give him the opportunity to speak for himself. And, perhaps even more important, give him the benefit of the doubt.
While you’re at it, Peck recommends digging into where your internal dialogue is coming from: Were you raised in a home where the man was expected to provide and manage the finances? Did your parents frown upon financial dependency? Or conversely, did you grow up around people who couldn’t manage their finances well, and become overly vigilant as a result? Everyone has deep-seated judgments baked into their financial views. Once you start to understand yours, you can separate them from your own financial reality.
You do need to get to the numbers, though, and it might be helpful to start by determining what expenses you’ll classify as “shared.” (Personally, my husband and I go through our shared spreadsheet once a month, and if the “shared” component is questionable — say, I bought new towels that he doesn’t think we need, or whatever — we discuss it then.) If this process ever goes awry (which it will!) remember to refer back to the big-picture discussion. Also, remember that splitting everything 50/50 isn’t always the way to go. “Plenty of couples split things 70/30, or 90/10, or using other formulas depending on their different financial situations or incomes,” says Peck.
I get that you want him to pay for more, and if he’s capable of doing so, that’s a totally reasonable request. Assuming he’s a reasonable guy, I’m confident that he’ll see that, too. But remember that money doesn’t balance the scales in a marriage. The dinners you pay for won’t compensate for the career sacrifices he made to be with you, and there’s no exact amount that will recoup the financial support you’ve given him in the past. There are just too many nuances at play. The scores will never quite be settled.
Recently, a friend told me about a mantra she learned in couples therapy: “I will replace compromise with generosity.” The way she explained it, compromise can have a negative quality — you’re making a concession, giving in, buying stuff for your partner because you don’t want to fight about it. Conversely, generosity involves seeking clarity about what your partner needs (which includes asking!), looking at what you can give, and then making the choice to give it. It’s about sharing in a way that still respects boundaries and free will. I liked that distinction, and it seemed like a much more sustainable approach than trying to measure what you owe each other all the time.