I always imagined that I would outearn my partner. This was not because I wanted to earn a lot of money, but because I didn’t want to depend on someone else to finance my life choices. If I want a house, or a dog, or a baby, I want to be able to pay for all of it on my own. Of course, it’s nice to have help, but I think of myself as a feminist and, as such, believe that any adult (male or female) must at least be willing to be 100% invested and accountable for their life choices. It’s not just about my financial security as a woman (although, of course, that is a big part of it), but it’s also about my empowerment as a human.
I realize that there will always be times when a woman either cannot rely solely on her own finances or chooses, after an honest, mutual decision with her partner, to put his career first or rely on his finances. But, for me, making my own money is important because it is about being 100% invested in my choices. The way I see it, if I’m going to buy a house or have a kid and expect someone else to fund it, it means I’m only halfway invested in it. And sometimes the only way you can be 100% sure you want to do something, and know you’re not doing it because it’s someone else’s dream, is by being 100% financially responsible for it.
Today, I earn more than twice what my partner does. I have employee benefits (such as a 401k and health insurance) that he doesn’t. I also have paid time off which, until recently, he did not have as an hourly employee. Of course, I would like him to have better benefits and earn more because it would give him more freedom and financial security. But I don’t ever really think about it as something that holds me back or burdens me. To be clear, he often works more hours than I do, is really good at his job, and has done a lot to get where he is in a very specific industry. But his industry and location is such that he is unlikely to ever make more than $50,000 or have retirement benefits, unless he gives up the work he loves.
The only time that his lower income concerns me is when I think about worst-case scenarios or what would happen if he had to solely rely on me. If we broke up, or he got sick or disabled, and he had to retire without any savings, I worry about how he’d manage. If he had to rely on me, or we had children and the kids had to rely on my income, how would I manage the burden of being financially responsible for other people? This is a concern that used to be reserved for men. Men entered the workforce and began relationships and families with the inexorable understanding that they would be financially responsible for their spouses and children. That’s a terrifying responsibility, regardless of gender. But it’s unavoidable whenever you open your life to someone else: you open yourself up to the possibility of needing to rely on them or them needing to rely on you. It’s an agonizing catch-22. If I want the security and self-empowerment of complete financial independence, but I still want to share my life with someone, I have to accept that they might rely on me.
Some might say that this catch-22 is resolved by finding a partner who is your financial equal. But, especially if you are a woman with a high-earning potential, financial equals who are also good romantic matches are a demographic unicorn. Sure, there are more high-earning men than women, but I have often found the men in my profession (or similarly well-paid professions) to be particularly unappealing because they define so much of their self-worth by their profession and, often times, the ensuing paycheck. There is so much more to a person than the job they have or the money they make. The job and the money can disappear with no warning, but the person underneath all of that is what’s real, and it’s the only thing worth banking on.
I think part of what drew me to my partner is the very same thing that causes me to outearn him. Specifically, he comes from a blue-collar family in a geographic region with limited socioeconomic opportunities. In some ways, he’s been a victim of his background because he never had the educational and professional opportunities that I did. But, in other ways, he’s defied that background. And that is what makes me love him. I love that he can be from a Bible-thumping town and have punk rock female friends who call themselves the “feminist killjoys.” I also love that he can replace a flat tire in minutes and chop wood properly. Sure, there are things that annoy the hell out of me and sometimes our financial, professional, and socioeconomic disparities result in conflict. But, for the most part, the differences that come with our disparate earning potentials are attractive and challenging — in a good way.
There will always be a part of me that wrestles with my feminist ideals of self-empowerment and my fear of being relied upon or taken advantage of. I think, whether you outearn your partner or not, you’re always scared that you will somehow invest in them and the relationship, and have it not work out. If you’re a stay-at-home parent, you worry about not earning as much as your partner. If you’re the sole breadwinner, you worry about providing for your family, or you gripe if your stay-at-home partner is not doing enough work around the house or for the family (which is a shitty thing to do, but I have found that it is a trap that the higher-earning partner may fall into).
As a feminist, one of my biggest worries is disentangling my feelings about money, work, and relationships from those that are genuinely my beliefs, and those that have simply been internalized from societal norms. I struggle with a lot of thoughts about how I earn my money, what I choose to spend it on, and whether I want others to spend their money on me. Regardless of whether you’re feminist of not, I think it’s always important to have a backup plan, to be self-reliant, and to allow yourself to be vulnerable with your partner when you are in an honest, respectful relationship. I am sure that there are women who can do all of that as stay-at-home moms, just as there are men that can do that as stay-at-home dads. But I am not one of them. For me to feel self-reliant and know that I have a backup plan, I need to be making my own money.
It’s hard to have the requisite amount of honesty and compassion for your partner, while still financially preparing yourself for worst-case scenarios and staying true to yourself. That’s why it requires a huge leap of faith to invest in your relationship. Sometimes I wonder if the women who won’t date men who makes less than six-figures, or who ask their husbands to pay off their student loans are too close to the “extreme” category on the relationship spectrum. But some people would say I’m extreme. And honestly, I’m still struggling as a human, a woman, a professional, and a feminist to understand how to navigate all of this. So far, I’ve (personally) found that being wholly financially accountable for my big life choices has been a step in the right direction.
Emma is an attorney who moved from NYC to Nashville for law school and decided to stay. She will never again live North of the Mason-Dixon line or pay more than 1/3 of her salary in rent. Follow her blog or her Instagram.
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