unequal relationship

The Shocking Challenge of the Financially Unequal Relationship

Let’s take a look at very personal form of income and wealth inequality—that between partners in a marriage or committed relationship. This presents some challenges that do not exist where the partners are financially equal. The specific issues, of course, vary with each couple. Yet what I’ve seen is that the dynamics in financially unequal relationships tend to fit into one of three general categories. I call these the funder and beneficiary, the proportional spenders, and the equal dividers.

The first is what I call the funder and beneficiary, where the wealthy partner completely supports the poor partner, basically paying for everything. While this tends to be the stereotypical perception of unequal relationships, in my experience it is the least common.

What might be some of the emotions behind this dynamic? The wealthy funder often has a love language of giving and may have money scripts that giving makes them more attractive or lovable. A wounded part of themselves may be hungry for belonging and attempts to satisfy that need by attracting a partner through showing love materialistically. The non-wealthy beneficiary may have a vulnerable part with its own need for belonging who believes material gifts and support are evidence of someone’s affection. The beneficiary is often more compliant and tolerant in the relationship in exchange for monetary benefits, and they could be unwilling to rock the boat if the partnership doesn’t progress to a long-term commitment.

The second dynamic is proportional spenders, who share expenses according to their respective incomes. For example, the wealthy partner may pay for discretionary expenses like entertainment and travel, while basic living expenses are proportionately divided. Or each partner may contribute proportionately to a joint account.

This can be the more emotionally balanced relationship of the three types. Both partners recognize the financial inequality and share a sense of being responsible for themselves financially according to their means. The non-wealthy partner is likely to accept the partial financial support, but is typically willing to lose the relationship and its monetary perks if there is no perceived future.

The third dynamic is equal dividers, where partners agree that each pays an equal share of all joint expenses. This choice may be at either partner’s insistence. The wealthier partner often holds strong money scripts in the Money Vigilant category. They can have a vulnerable part that longs for belonging and attachment, but fears that affection shown by a partner is going to be tainted by their money instead of being authentic. They may put up stringent boundaries to protect themselves. In the same way, the non-wealthy partner may have strict boundaries around receiving, insisting on paying their half even when they harm themselves financially because they can’t afford it. Both partners are likely to be willing to lose the relationship if their boundaries are not held to. Both probably have vulnerable parts that feel inadequate and carry shame.

In addition to the stress within the financially unequal relationship, I have often observed that the greatest stress and pressure often come outside it. There may be a sense of “what will people think?” The family and friends of the wealthier partner often are concerned that the non-wealthy partner is a “gold digger” only after their money. The non-wealthy partner’s family and friends may be suspicious that the wealthy partner is using or taking advantage of them. This is especially true when (as is frequently the case) the wealthy partner is older.

Money always can be a complicated and stressful component in a relationship. Being financially unequal just adds another layer of complexity. Somewhat ironically, one advantage for such couples is that the inequality almost always forces the partners to have the money talk relatively early.

Typically it’s going to take above average determination, introspection, emotional intelligence, and transparent communication for a couple to overcome the challenges of financial inequality. Usually, the inequality in terms of money is less important when both partners feel valued and respected for who they are rather than the monetary value they bring into the relationship.  

Check out The Financial Therapy Podcast by Rick Kahler concerning this topic.

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