“I’ve been in a relationship for the last three and a half years with a truly wonderful guy whom I love with all my heart. He’s funny, smart, handsome, and gets me in a way not even my closest friends do. I can spend a whole night with him on a park bench, drinking wine out of the bottle and talking shit, or I could go to an elegant dinner with one of our families and watch him dazzle everyone at the table. I fell in love with him because of his quick and wonderful mind, and it is still the reason I love him today, even though things are, objectively, not working.
When we met, we were both in college, him in grad school and me in undergrad. He was finishing up his Master’s in American History, and I was in the last semester of my Bachelor’s in communications. We both used to joke all the time that we would be broke all our lives because neither of us were going to be able to find a job, but we were madly in love and didn’t imagine that our mutual broke liberal arts-ness would be that much of a problem. At the time, we were going to a college in Georgia and even though we were both college students on loans from middle-class families, our lifestyle was more “artsy” and less “broke.” We went out a lot to cheap bars or to friends’ houses, and spent nine months out of the year hanging out outside.
When I graduated a year before he finished his Master’s, I stuck around our town even though we hadn’t been together that long, because I loved him and didn’t want to ruin what seemed like a real possibility. I took a job at a coffee shop and did unpaid PR work for a tiny upstart firm in Atlanta, and even though we weren’t living the high life, it was some of the happiest time in my life. I was able to earn a little bit more than him, even just on a barista’s wages, so our humble little life felt slightly less humble, and being able to very occasionally treat him with things when I had a good week in tips felt thrilling.
By the time he finished his Master’s, he was itching to get out of Georgia and go to New York, where a lot of his friends were living and working. He was going to try to get a job with the NYC public school system, and until then, we would both be servers in restaurants. One of his friends gave us a place to crash for a month while we found work and our own place, both of which we managed to find pretty quickly. Looking back, I don’t think we ever had the formal “should we live together” discussion, but we decided that we were going to move to New York, and it was impossible for us to do that living separately, so it always just became an assumed thing.
He took a job at a little cafe/bar/music venue in Williamsburg and I worked at a more upscale place in downtown Manhattan, and we shared a bedroom in a big apartment in Bushwick. Yes, it was all very cliché, but for us it was fun. Our earnings were about the same (I earned slightly more), but our rent was very low and considering we both had a lot of student loans (though, him a lot more than me), it wasn’t like spending was our big focus, anyway.
For the first six months, I was looking relentlessly for a “real” job. It had never even occurred to me that working in the service industry was something we would do long-term, and I looked at it as an opportunity to support myself while looking for something more stable. We had both paid a lot of money for degrees, and it felt ridiculous to not at least attempt to use them. By the end of that six-month period, I had gotten a job at a marketing agency in Manhattan based on one of the connections I had made at my little PR job. By early spring, I was a “working girl” earning more money than I had ever seen in my life (which is not saying a ton, but $52,000 was a lot of money to me), and was able to make real progress on my loans. I was itching to move out of our apartment, for convenience, and because I could finally afford more than 350 dollars a month, but my boyfriend didn’t want to.
He hadn’t taken his search for a teaching job very seriously, and was saying at that point that he wasn’t sure if he wanted it. He had been submitting to a few blogs here and there, and had an article published on a popular music blog, and felt like he wanted to give himself the chance to really try for a writing career. I was worried about money, of course, but it was important to me that he be able to at least give it a shot, and my thinking was that if I discouraged that and we stayed together, he would always resent me for it. So he started working on his blog and submitting articles, even though he wasn’t getting paid yet, and I stayed strong at my career.
It’s over a year later now and I have gotten a raise, promotion, and bonus. I pay hundreds of dollars per month towards my student loans, AND save 20% of my paycheck. And to be honest, part of the reason this is possible is because we are still living in this crappy apartment in Bushwick. My boyfriend has been paid for a grand total of three articles to date, and he is now shift manager at his cafe. I do appreciate and love his progress, and I know that he is a genuinely good writer, but the strain of me being the career girl and breadwinner is showing cracks in our relationship.
If we want to do basically anything together, from dinners out to vacations, I have to be the one to pay for it. I can’t rely on him for anything, and it makes me feel incredibly vulnerable. We got a domestic partnership so that he could be on my insurance, and even though it’s realistically not a big commitment at all, it still filled me with nerves when we got it done. I didn’t want to commit to him further because I can feel myself every day getting more and more angry with him.
But part of me feels like that’s unfair, because there are tons of times that this dynamic works in the opposite way and no one thinks anything of it. A high-earning man supports his wife to pursue what she wants and it’s not a big deal. And maybe it’s unfeminist of me, but that dynamic never bothered me, and this one does. I have to suppress the urge on a near-daily basis to tell him to “man up,” or just explode at him for not taking the responsibility over his life and his part of our finances. Most of the money he earns is going towards his significant student debt, which I know he needs to do, but it’s starting to feel almost selfish to me. I would love to be able to do that with my money, but I have to use it to support our life as a couple, if I ever want to go anywhere or do anything.
I never thought I would be the kind of girl to feel weird about gender norms, but here I am.”
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