Money. According to numerous studies and surveys, it’s the number-one source of conflict in romantic relationships — and also the subject we are least likely to openly talk about. There are lots of reasons why. Sometimes friction occurs because we hold incompatible financial values and goals. Other times, trust is undermined when individuals are less than honest about spending habits and debt load.
Here’s another issue: It’s increasingly common for couples to run into trouble simply because one partner earns more than the other, triggering all sorts of unexpected feelings. The partner who consistently must pick up the tab or pay the bills may find it hard to fight off resentment and judgments. On the other hand, the one who can’t contribute as much as they’d like can easily succumb to guilt, shame, and defensiveness. Both emotional extremes are toxic to healthy relationships.
Fortunately, it’s possible to dissipate financial tension before it does lasting damage. Here are five strategies for doing just that:
That’s right—talk about money, in defiance of cultural taboos. Do it sooner rather than later. Resentment and guilt don’t appear right away; they only grow with time, the secondary result of unspoken thoughts and feelings. Head them off by being honest from the get-go.
Create a shared definition of “worth.”
Often, trouble over income inequality arises because partners regard the “bottom line” as the only way to assess value— ignoring other, non-monetary standards. For example, schoolteachers will never earn as much as software engineers, but teachers undoubtedly play an equally vital role in society. Can you and your partner agree that some professions shouldn’t be defined by dollars alone? If not, consider re-evaluating how compatible you really are.
Be aware of gender bias.
In 1970, only 7 percent of American women earned more than their husbands. By 2014, the figure had jumped to 24 percent. That’s progress, but still a long way from parity. That means conflict over income inequality in a relationship is three times more likely to arise because a man out-earns a woman—a fact that can open the door to outmoded ways of thinking about gender roles in general. Don’t let money turn back the clock on your relationship.
Equally divide total labor.
Other statistics indicate that, even in relationships where women earn more, they are still more likely to do more of the unpaid household work than their male partner. When facing income inequality in your relationship, be sure to account for everything you and your partner contribute to your life together.
Remember: “All for one, and one for all.”
Once your relationship becomes long-term, consider ditching the “his” and “hers” approach to finances entirely. Couples with common resources—and equally shared rights and responsibilities—are more likely to see prosperity as a joint venture, and less as a source of strife.