Who Earns More? How to Talk About Income Inequality in Your Relationship

Lindsay Goldwert
October 16th, 2020 | 10 min

Money can be very clear cut when each person in a relationship earns around the same. After all, if you both feel like financial equals, and that you each have an equal stake in the choices that you want to make together.

In 2020, the issue how we contribute at home has never been more top of mind. COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on so many of our professional lives; couples are coping with unemployment, furloughs, and child care issues while having to make day-to-day decisions about spending and saving.

Money Date sat down (virtually) with Farnoosh Torabi, host of the So Money” podcast and author of When She Makes More: The Truth About Navigating Love and Life for a New Generation of Women to talk about the issues that come up when one person in a relationship makes more than the other and how to communicate all the complexities that come with it.

What kind of issues come up when there’s income inequality at home?

Farnoosh Torabi: The breakdown in communication is one of the biggest things that happens when there is a disparity in income. There's a lot of awkward feelings about how each person is contributing to the relationship, what it means, how it's reflecting on them.

If you both make the same amount of money, it's harder to shut one person down. But if there's one partner who makes nothing or half of what the other person makes, that person can start to feel less-than. Or the person who makes more can feel like they should be the one making the big household decisions. That’s where the problems come in. When there’s income inequality, emotions can run high and resentments can run deep.

There was definitely a power struggle in my home when I was growing up. My mother didn't make much of an income and there were constant fights around her wanting to purchase certain things and my father disagreeing or not being able to come to terms with why it was important to pay for daycare or a housekeeper or things like that.

How has the COVID pandemic had an impact on income equality in relationships?

Farnoosh Torabi: Experts are dubbing the 2020 recession as a “she-cession” for a reason; we’re seeing more women lose their jobs as opposed to men. In the last recession, things were the opposite, there were more men losing their jobs because there were collapses in more male-dominated industries like finance and manufacturing and construction.

We saw a lot of women become the breadwinners during those years and continue to be the breadwinners in their marriages. In 2020, many women have lost or had to give up their jobs to take on more at home.

But I think that in general, I think there is a widening of the income disparity gap in relationships, simply because of where we are with unemployment. And I think it's more likely that in a relationship, you'll have one person who's not working or working less.

How can income inequality lead to fights about money?

Farnoosh Torabi: Historically, men are groomed to be the ones that source a lot of their sense of self-worth from providing financially in a relationship or for their family. So when they're not doing that, or when they're not in that primary role, it can start to affect their sense of self worth. And that can manifest in a lot of ways.

One member of the couple may remain silent or start acting out. Some men report feeling emasculated when they’re not making as much as she is. I found in my research that when it's a female breadwinner, there's a higher chance for infidelity and divorce on both sides. It's both partners feeling like their needs aren't being met.

What are other ways that gender makes it complicated?

Farnoosh Torabi: Two things that really stood out from my research is that a woman who makes more money than her spouse tends to do more housework and than a wife who makes the same or less. When I spoke to psychologists about it, they said some were trying to make up in the housewife department because the breadwinner isn't the traditional feminine role. Whether it's subconscious or conscious, she may be trying to overcompensate.

Things can get really scary when she makes more and the situation feels like a threat to her relationship or if they are constant arguments; there's a real probability that she’ll leave her job or pass up a higher role. And then things get really depressing because that's against everything we encourage women to do, which is to just go out there and be financially independent.

But it’s more complicated than that because women are still expected to be at the forefront of everything else at home. It’s a lot to handle, emotionally.

We arrive in relationships without a roadmap on how to navigate all these financial flip-flops. It's very easy to go back to “the norms” because there are rules and roadmaps for that.

How can we have more productive conversations around money and contributing at home?

Farnoosh Torabi: Losing a job in a pandemic is no one's fault. You can’t play the blame game, like, “when are you going to get a job?” That needs to go out the window for a while.

Deciding what makes us feel significant in providing for the relationship is essential. If you're not doing the money part, what else do you want to do to feel like an equal player? You have to assign roles and literally, write them down. And this is a living, breathing document. It can just be for now because this time next year, things could look different.

But everyone needs to understand that there may be big changes to a lot of the ways that they're used to feeling like a contributor in the relationship.

What are some helpful ways to avoid fighting about money?

Farnoosh Torabi: The thing you want to avoid is sort of telling your partner what they have to do. It’s important everyone feels like they're volunteering to do these things and that they want to do them. And if there are certain things that neither one of you wants to do, okay, well, there has to be a plan around that. If nobody wants to do the laundry, you’ll have to budget separately for that. Make it like a business plan.

What are ways that couples can provide emotional support to each other?

Farnoosh Torabi: Part of working as a team is also knowing that the person who isn’t earning the paycheck also needs a one to two hour break a day just to themselves. Maybe they want to take a long bath or go for a walk. Whatever it is, they need to unwind and detangle from the children and taking care of all the things they’ve been tasked with doing.

At work, you’re one person accountable to a boss and there are opportunities to say, go get a coffee. But when you're with your kids and you got your mom on the phone and you're cooking and trying to grocery shop, there's not a lot of opportunity for you to take time for yourself. The person who's not working and staying home is taking care of a million other people. It just sucks the life out of you.

So giving your partner that extra hour or two back a day is gold. Because I can tell you, without that, he or she will fall apart very quickly.

Negotiating time for yourself can also mean staying on track to get back into the workplace. It can mean going to a virtual conference or taking classes.

What I've heard from so many successful couples who have navigated income disparity in any economy is that they look at the goals that they have together as though they’re the third member of the relationship, almost like a baby. It's all about teamwork and having these kinds of conversations to keep it all going.

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