It is a painfully familiar trope: A couple enjoys the comforts of their life together when suddenly one partner catapults toward career success and the relationship falters. Perhaps this success means said partner spends more time in the office, or the money makes them behave differently, or doors have opened only for them. Or maybe, sometimes, the other partner is simply jealous, can’t bear to be seen in a secondary position. In this trope, it’s always a man who resents a female partner’s success. The lingering gender norm that men must be the breadwinner puts added stress upon an already challenging upheaval.
Such is the plot of Fair Play, a new Netflix thriller about a secretly engaged pair of hedge-fund analysts whose relationship is upended by the woman’s promotion. Although it may not always have as much dramatic flair, real-life relationships routinely succumb to similar fates. Below, four men at various stages of the dynamic — including one whose marriage fell apart due to his own success — reflect upon how careers, ambition, and money become tangled in their own expectations for themselves and their partners, consciously or otherwise.
“I’d busted my ass for a decade to get to her level so I could feel like I had some equity in our relationship.”
“It’s one of those things where ‘the money makes the rules’ — even if it wasn’t implicitly stated. And, like in every relationship, conversations about finances were never great between my wife and I.
Growing up, my dad worked and my mom stayed home and kept house, so that was the blueprint I learned from — the man of the house has to earn. When I met my wife, she was a few years into a career in insurance and was moving upward. When we married, our incomes were fairly equal. A few weeks after the wedding, I was laid off from my job in advertising and had a catastrophic climbing injury to my knee that put me on my ass for a few months — all of this happened in a week. It vastly tilted the idea of “equal” in our relationship. I was collecting unemployment and had to switch to her insurance plan. Between surgeries and PT, I was racking up the bills. That was nearly 15 years ago. Things are still rocky.
After I was back on my feet, the job market in my industry sucked. I started freelancing a bit, then full time, then I opened a business. She wasn’t a fan of how my situation impacted her taxes — that was a whole new argument. Over time, through my business, my take home was finally somewhat equal to what she was earning. She quit her job to take a few months off. When she decided to get back to work, she was hired to a new company (after like three email exchanges) and is now making more than twice what she had previously.
It drove me up the wall. I’d busted my ass for a decade to get to her level so I could feel like I had some equity in our relationship. Then, out of nowhere, the goalposts move way the fuck upfield. Obviously, she was excited about the new income and had all these plans to pay off debts. I was more in shock — it was hard to be excited when I was outright jealous. Even today, a year later, she tells stories about people who ‘do nothing’ in her company that still clear $300K.
As for the sabotage: As she started increasing her spending to match her new income, I was shooting down everything I could. Sure, we needed a new refrigerator, but why do we have to have one of the most expensive ones? Why are you always picking where we go on trips? Sorry, I can’t go to dinner with our friends tonight because I have to get this project done for this client so I can get paid.
Basically, I was consciously dragging her down to my level of spending. Meanwhile, I’m also looking around for anyone who will validate my existence beyond my income. Hitting up old exes and lonely wives and anyone who will send me those late-night or drunk messages of ‘I wish we were together’ sort of things. Haven’t cheated, at least not in the biblical sense, but probably not the kind of behavior healthy relationships are built on. — Marketing contractor, 38, Colorado
“We fell into an age-old dynamic where she would come home from work and expect dinner on the table and a clean house and get grumpy when things weren’t that way, and I would resent how hard I had been trying.”
There were always issues. I was working as a lab administrator and making a decent living and helped support her through law school after meeting at a local Brooklyn watering hole. She moved in with me, and I immediately told her to stop paying rent. She’d be the first to admit that she probably didn’t spend a dime through those three years. Even though there weren’t crazy fireworks, there was mutual respect and appreciation. I was blown away by how smart she is and I would guess she saw in me kindness and warmth, if a bit blurred by copious amounts of bourbon. Fast-forward to having a child at the same time she graduated law school and then moving out of state from New York to Kentucky for the only real job offered to her. Living there was fine with me, but she definitely struggled as someone who had lived half her life in New York City. Motherhood was challenging and not at all as she expected. Our son was not an easy baby. Awesome in so many ways, but not easy — just very fussy, had a lot of trouble nursing. I am sure psychologically it was very rough on her.
When it became clear we were going to move so she could start the new job and the birth was imminent, we decided that I would become the primary caregiver. She was very eager for me to be a stay-at-home dad and talked frequently about how happy she would be to come home after work and just be all about the baby, and that I would have plenty of time after she’d get off work to play music or exercise or whatever.
The boy and I formed a strong bond. It often took on an us-against-her dynamic as she struggled to find where she fit. We fell into an age-old dynamic where she would come home from work and expect dinner on the table and a clean house and get grumpy when things weren’t that way, and I would resent how hard I had been trying and be faced with the classic ‘Well, you could have cleaned the kitchen when he took a nap’ kind of crap that women have had to deal with forever. Where we once had respect and admiration for each other’s kindness and intelligence, we began to realize those things stopped being enough when they were tested by co-parenting and a career. My sense of self was no longer defined by anything outside of our child. So she got deeper into her job, had an affair (encouraged by me who had become the disinterested spouse) and we grew farther and farther apart as resentment took hold on both sides.
I found out about the affair after finally noticing her emotional distance. I begged her to tell me what was wrong, and eventually, she told me she was ‘in love.’ We decided she would pursue the relationship to see if her feelings were real. She’d spend a few nights a week away, sometimes on her own and sometimes with him. We told our son that she just needed some alone time. Eventually she said one night that it was basically over with him and she wanted to give us a chance. The amount of talking about it since then has been next to nothing. We haven’t resolved things, but we are still together.
— Lab administrator, 53, Kentucky
“I was afraid that she would find some other future doctor and leave me.”
When I was in college, I had a long-term relationship with a wonderful girl. She was pre-med and always a hard worker, whereas I was smart but more of a slacker. Eventually she got into medical school and I didn’t get into a graduate program.
This led to a great deal of insecurity for me. I was stuck trying to launch the next phase of my education and she was moving on to medical school. We are still in the same metro area, but I was afraid that she would find some other future doctor and leave me. This level of anxiety led me to start detaching preemptively from the relationship, but I did it by self-sabotage. I let myself develop a serious porn addiction and dove head first into some fetishes that led to decreased intimacy and strain with my partner. She even tried to humor me with things like being a femdom to bring the spark back to the sexual side of the relationship, but the passion was gone.
We broke up in her first year of medical school. She did end up marrying a doctor. Maybe things wouldn’t have worked out anyways, but I feel like I gave up earlier than I needed to. Men grow up with a lot of expectations of being the ‘breadwinner’ and that social programming and anxiety about my ex moving away for school was hard to process, but ultimately I think my own insecurity was the issue. — IT representative, 31, Texas
“It’s a balance of power, and it just changed things.”
I got married when I was 26. She was doing a master’s degree, like me. We both got our masters and then we went on to PhD programs at the same university. While I was in that PhD program, I started writing short stories that started getting published. An agent read one of them in a magazine and became interested, and in my third year of my PhD, he sold my book. So I’m still a graduate student, and all of a sudden, there’s this book deal and money. And then I’m like, ‘Wow, I might be able to take this to the job market.’ I just threw out an application thinking nothing would come from it, and three weeks later, I had a tenure-track job offer. January 1 of that year, I was a graduate student with no book, and then six months later, I was an associate professor with a two-book deal and a PhD at the age of like, 29. All of a sudden, I go from being a graduate student to teaching graduate students.
Before that my wife and I were two graduate students who were living like graduate students live. You don’t have any money. You have just enough to get by unless something goes wrong. Then suddenly I had a job with insurance and could pay for her insurance. I could actually provide a life for us. That shifted the balance. It’s a balance of power, and it just changed things. I mean, it was just immediate, right? She felt that, I felt that, and everything was different.
To add to that, we moved across the country for that job. So we’re both moving to a place where we don’t have any friends or family within 1,000 miles. That summer between moving and starting the new job, we were kind of riding on a high. But by the fall, I felt like I had been pushing toward all these things — a book, my PhD, a job. And then all that happened at once. I just hit the wall, a deep depression. It was not expected. She was worried about me. She was like, ‘Oh, like, you’re not doing well.’ I went to talk to somebody. I got on an antidepressant, and that helped. But when I came out of that depressive thing the following spring, I kind of woke back up. I realized all the relationship dynamics had changed. I also realized that we had stopped having sex and had become — gosh, it’s so common — we’d become affectionate roommates.
She’s a very bright, capable person, and very hardworking. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a housewife, but she wasn’t going to be that. She ended up taking a postdoc at a very prestigious institution. For the first time in our marriage, we were two hours away from one another in a long-distance marriage all of a sudden. It wasn’t survivable.
We were together almost exactly six years before we were separated. It was very congenial. There wasn’t a sense of animosity or anything at all.
One caveat to all this is that I was like, ‘We’re going to move. I’m going to accept this job. We don’t really have any other choice.’ And she was like, ‘I don’t know if I want you to accept this job. We should have talked more about this before you accepted it.’ We did discuss it, and she was happy about it, but I think she wanted more discussion on my part. I get it now more than I got it then. If I wanted to save the marriage, I would have tried to get us both in marriage counseling. But because the changes I was experiencing were positive, I never thought about it as the kinds of things you would need to go to marriage counseling for. But radical change is as destructive to the stability of a relationship as anything, whether that change is up or down. — Professor, 51, the South