My husband and I have been married for two years and together for five. We’re both in our late 20s and live in New York. He works for a nonprofit and I’m a management consultant. Overall, we’re pretty happy. But one significant issue is that my dad disapproves of the fact that my husband doesn’t make a lot of money. This is particularly bad going into the holidays, when we visit my family, and always results in tension.
I know that my dad means well and is looking out for me. But he thinks that my husband lacks ambition and is “mooching” off of my income. He makes comments about how we need to plan for the future more, and that our household income will be tough to live on when we have kids (which we hope to do someday). The thing is, he’s not entirely wrong. I definitely don’t think my husband is lazy, and I’m perfectly happy earning more money than he does. But sometimes I do wish that he would be able to contribute more to our shared expenses and savings (his paycheck is less than half of what I make — I’m in the low six figures, and he makes a little over $50,000). He’s very touchy about it, though, especially because of my dad. When I bring up the future, he gets really defensive. I’m also worried that I might just be internalizing what my dad says. Am I selfish to be thinking these things? What should I do?
There’s a lot going on here! Dad issues, marital issues, the inevitable conflict between how you were raised and how you choose to live your own adult life — no wonder you’re confused. But first things first: You need to have a conversation with your dad about his concerns, and cut him out of this dynamic as much as possible.
“There needs to be a boundary between your marriage and your father,” says Megan McCoy, a licensed marriage and family therapist and professor of personal financial planning at Kansas State University. But rather than just telling your dad to butt out, it would be more helpful to address his fears about your finances directly. “Asking your dad about what, exactly, he’s so worried would be healing for both of you,” explains McCoy.
Encourage him to be as specific as possible. For example, maybe he’s concerned that you (hypothetically) won’t be able to afford the same lifestyle that he provided for your family. Then follow up with more questions — what’s the worst thing that could happen if that were the case? From there, you can assure him that you’re happy with what you have now, and you make enough money to be comfortable, etc. “By talking through the scenarios he is imagining, you can put him and yourself at ease,” says McCoy.
If this approach doesn’t have the desired outcome, and your dad is still grumbling about your husband’s paycheck afterward, then you can be more forceful in telling him to quit it. “Your dad needs to learn how to manage these feelings on his own,” McCoy adds. She recommends drawing a clear line by saying something like, “Dad, we talked about this already, remember?” End of story.
This does not solve the problem of how you feel about your partner’s income, however. And I understand your internal conflict around this. You seem unsure about the source of your financial anxieties — are they the result of your dad’s harping? Or your own fears about self-sufficiency? It’s tough to give legitimacy to your worries when you aren’t sure who to ascribe them to. And it doesn’t help if you feel embarrassed about them either.
“Discard the shame around money and financial interests so you can take a good look at what they mean to you,” says Shannon Curry, a therapist who specializes in couples and financial issues. “Is there a particular value that you attribute to someone who is an earner?” Conversely, do you have negative associations toward people who are financially dependent on their partner?
While you’re at it, think about the values that your dad modeled for you. I point this out because you clearly relate to your father’s point of view, and you see the reason behind his opinions. What lessons did he teach you, both on purpose and inadvertently, about money and family? What about him do you admire, and what do you not want to emulate? “Your father’s fears are probably similar to your own because you were socialized with his beliefs around money,” says McCoy. “Talking to him about this, and thinking about it on your own, will help you develop a more coherent understanding of how your views diverge from his.” From there, you’ll be better equipped to discuss them with your partner.
The best way to bring up this topic with your husband is to spring it on him out of the blue while you’re both hungry and tired. Just kidding. You want to give him plenty of advance notice, so that he has time to gather his thoughts. “We tend to put off financial conversations until something is wrong,” says McCoy. “But research shows that if you create goals together, your relational satisfaction goes up.” So instead of treating money like a problem to be solved, approach it as something that enables you to do the stuff you want to do as a couple. McCoy recommends saying something like, “I know we’ve had some tension around our finances. Let’s get on the same page of what our goals look like for the next couple of years. And then we can make a plan, based on our salaries, for how we can reach those goals.”
Of course, it may be that your goals aren’t affordable based on your current paychecks. This is perfectly normal. The most important thing is to start a healthy dialogue, not create an ironclad 10-year plan with spreadsheets. “You will feel closer to each other if you keep focusing on your goals, and from there you can continue to have harder conversations about how you can afford them,” says McCoy. “It’s human nature to see things as very black and white, with one solution. But in reality, sometimes the sixth solution is the good one — so the objective is to keep talking.”
Another tip for these hard conversations: Bring a pencil and paper. “The act of physically writing things down — whether it’s numbers or ideas or whatever — can take some pressure off,” says McCoy. It also helps each person express themselves more clearly. Sometimes people hear what they want to hear, but if they write it down, their partner can see what resonates and has a chance to clarify. (You are literally getting on the same page.)
Finally, remember that many of these conflicts will always be there, so you might as well get comfortable with them. “Most marital problems will never, ever be resolved. That’s usually because they are attributable to differences in finances, organization, parenting styles, and spiritual beliefs,” says Curry. “These have to do with how we were raised, and our overall differences in temperament and experience as two separate human beings.” In other words, it’s totally normal to feel like your husband is a lazy, freeloading loser every once in a while. But you can have those thoughts and still love him, and appreciate his positive qualities, and ultimately work together on your shared goals.
Unless, of course, that isn’t really true. If your husband’s defensiveness around money doesn’t improve despite your best efforts, and you find yourself resenting him more and more, then it may be that some of your fears (and your dad’s) have merit. Sometimes financial differences really can’t be attributed to marital paradox and require bigger interventions (counseling is one place to start). But you can only find out by addressing these concerns one-on-one with your husband, openly and kindly, with your father out of the picture.