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Marriage, Money, and Making It Work

Everyone grows up surrounded by cultural paradigms, lenses through which we view or interpret the world. I’ve been thinking about two common cultural dialogues surrounding marriage / commitment and household economics – topics that interest me because I am in a serious relationship and because I find money, cultural norms, and gender roles to be fascinating topics.

The Nag and the Commitment-Phobe

An underlying assumption of our romantic cultural dialogue is that men are dragged into commitment, kicking and screaming, while women are the planners and instigators of such commitment, plotting and scheming. Cultural discourse portrays marriage as an end for the man (the end of freedom, fun, excitement, etc.) but a beginning for the woman (the beginning of “happiness”, true womanhood, “real life”). Think about the jokes about women having to get married by 35, or about men who deserve “condolences” when they announce their engagement [see A Practical Wedding blog for more on these topics]. Even though they might be said with a wink and a smile, these assumptions are internalized and disseminated.

Popular media talk about the woman “trapping” or “getting” the man to marry her (can you believe there’s such as a thing as an engagement chicken!?). I find that kind of…well, strange. While I do want to get married, I don’t see my job as “getting” CB, or any man for that matter, to marry me. My job is to treat myself and my partner with love, respect, and honesty. Call me a romantic, but isn’t a relationship a mutual journey and not a one-way pursuit?

A few days ago, CB and I talked a bit about how we see our future (I want to keep my name but lose the engagement ring, we both want a smallish wedding but big travel plans, he wants a big screen TV where we can play PS3 together, etc.). Our relationship is playful, but I do not play games with the important things. That means we reach marriage by deciding together that we want to commit to a lifelong partnership, not by me imbuing poultry with magical powers of persuasion. That’s why I find the language and perceptions surrounding men, women, and marriage to be so insidious, because I believe the way we discuss marriage and the future impacts how we live our marriage and build our future.

Real Men Make (More) Money

Another, related, line of cultural dialogue is that the man has to be the main economic provider in order to be a successful husband and father. CB and I have actually discussed this at length, because the man-as-provider was the model he saw as he was growing up. These dialogues are evolving, of course; but they exist. CB has said that he feels the pressures to support a family, even though we have every intention of being a dual-career, dual-income household.

Many couples have problems with the wife making more money than the husband because money is seen as a source of power in the relationship – even if the income is pooled. Not only that, money is seen as a source of masculine power. That’s why many women (not just men) find themselves uncomfortable when the girlfriends or the wives are the breadwinners. Knowing where the source of that discomfort comes from, though, is a first step in negotiating the landscape where household economics may differ from the traditional norms.

These paradigms are worth exploring and understanding, not because everything has to be analyzed to death, but so that we don’t unconsciously fall into these definitions of “marriage,” “money”, and “power” in our own relationships. I believe that a traditional arrangement where the man works and the woman takes care of the children is every bit as valuable a relationship as one where the couple both works or the woman works and the man stays home or both work part-time, etc., etc. By acknowledging and examining these cultural dialogues, couples can choose how they want to build their lives together.

CB and I will probably fall into some traditional gender roles because our interests have aligned themselves with such activities – I’ll do most of the cooking, because I enjoy it, and CB will change the oil and check the tire pressure on cars, because he’s good at it. As a New York Times article said so eloquently, the point “is not to spit at tradition for the heck of it but rather to think things through instead of defaulting to gender.” Exactly! The key is that we arrive at these decisions on income-earning and home-making thoughtfully, with an understanding of the cultural forces that influence our thinking.

  • Mike - That was a really insightful post, WellHeeled!

    It really reminds me of a post FinancialSamurai wrote a few days ago. (below)

    I know what you're thinking and no, he's not related to me. I don't personally know him either. Haha – as a matter of fact, he swore that we can't be friends because ninjas and samurais are enemies.

    Anyway, sorry for "dorking" up your blog with ninjas and samurais.

    Keep up the good work!


  • Mike - @Financial Samurai

    I swear that I just mentioned that to her. My comment is being moderated right now. Hah! ReplyCancel

    • Financial Samurai - Cool man. Thnx for looking out for me. Can't believe your GF said my post was "stupid"… or maybe I am "stupid." Time for you to get a new gf! lol ReplyCancel

  • Red - Very insightful post! I especially loved the quote from NYT about not spitting at tradition for the heck of it. As D and I discuss what kinds of things we like in a wedding, we're looking at it from a different perspective than I looked at it on my own – which was pretty much to say "to hell with tradition! let's go to the court house!" We're looking at traditions like keeping the top part of a wedding cake and thinking, "Hm, is this really something we WANT to do or just something we'd do because it's tradition?" (It only concerns us because we want a tiered cupcake tower instead of a traditional cake.)

    Anyway, I agree that we should examine traditional roles and customs to decide if they work for us as couples. We shouldn't do something because society says it should be this way or that way but because it benefits our individual relationships to do so. :-) ReplyCancel

    • WellHeeled - Cupcakes!? I'm getting hungry. I imagine it'd be easier freezing a couple of individual cupcakes than a tier of cake, right? Although I don't think I'd want to eat cake that's been frozen for a year! ReplyCancel

  • Financial Samurai - Sounds like CB is a Super Motivated Boyfriend (SMB)! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. How long have you and CB been together, and how far away is he from the magical age of 30? ReplyCancel

    • WellHeeled - I wouldn’t necessarily characterize CB in the same way that you characterized SMBs. ūüėČ I do agree that he is motivated, but that is by no means his finest quality, and I think I am lucky to have a partner in him.ReplyCancel

      • Financial Samurai - Glad you have found someone. It'll be good to somehow figure out whether he's the type to delay marriage for as long as possible and be happy just as gf/bf.

        Another deadly SMB (besides the good looking SMB) is one who lulls their gf into believing that he will one day marry her, and fast forward 7, 8, 9, 10 years and he is still happily dating with no intention of marriage. Girls won't know where the time went because he is so crafty! ReplyCancel

        • WellHeeled - Oh, I definitely think that marriage should be a topic of conversation (if you want it or not, when you want it, etc.) – and at that point we all – men AND women – have freedom of choice. We can choose to pursue a relationship that is headed towards marriage, we can choose to continue in a relationship but take marriage off the table, we can choose to walk away once we discover that our partners may not have the same vision of what our life will be like. I believe in being honest with yourself and with the person you love – and once the honesty's there, we have the ability to make the best decision we can. And if the honesty is NOT there, then why the heck would you want to continue in a serious relationship with that person? ReplyCancel

        • WellHeeled - Thanks for your post, by the way. Made me think (as you can probably tell). LOL. :) ReplyCancel

  • Investing Newbie - This is a great article.

    It has me thinking about some conversations that BF and I have gotten into recently since he is graduating (finally) and entering the work force.

    I, for one ,am part of the school of Romance and believe that there is nothing better than the commitment. Not a ring, not a wedding, but the actual word cum action of commitment. When not only he says he will be there, but is there. And you do the same for your partner. Once you have reached that point in your relationship, of course the next step can be marriage but it doesn't have to be.

    Although being together for 7, in your case, or 3.5 years in my case, presumes marriage is around the corner in our society, it shouldn't be that way. You can have been with someone for 10 years and still haven't found the perfect "fighting" method or be with them for 2 months and just click. It's about the quality of time spent until you 'get it right' and are ready to fight together for whatever may come.

    That said, BF and I are still working towards that! ReplyCancel

    • WellHeeled - Hmm.. the whole marriage vs. commitment debate is interesting. My take is this – CB and I are traditional enough that if we want to spend our lives with each other, we would want to mark commitment with marriage, but not every couple is like that. The key is to be honest with yourself and your partner about what you need. We're not ready to get married now, but we're building our relationship to head that way – if I thought that marriage was not in the cards at all, I would reevaluate. Not because I value marriage above all else, but rather because the act of getting married still represents something to us. ReplyCancel

  • Kim - It seems the common thread here (with the post and comments) is HONESTY HONESTY HONESTY! Honestly (har har), I believe that honest, open communication is the most important thing in any relationship. It's hard to stick to (we are all guilty of not expressing our true feelings from time to time), but so very crucial to making it work! ReplyCancel

  • Money Reasons - The values and beliefs of relationships and marriage has changed drastically since the evolution of the 1 income household into a 2 income household and the rise of the female breadwinner. Now marriages is seen as a split down the middle kind of arrangement, with the man and women sharing responsibilities equally.

    In the past (says pre 1950s), the goal of a woman was to land a successfully (SMB) – Super Motivated Boyfriend (as FS would put it). But these days the income earning abilities and opportunities open to women has drastically changed the paradigm! Now women want a career too. They are no long satisfied being the pretty little woman at home with the kids. Some still do (my wife got and accounting degree, but wanted to be a stay at home mom instead, much to my surprise…).

    In past relationships men use to hold all the cards, but now women hold the majority of the cards whether they all know it or not.

    We are all going thru a transformative period for male and female relationships, and in many ways it's a great time to be a women. Enjoy the change, it's not like it is here in other countries or cultures! ReplyCancel

  • PurpleGirl - Great post; I think way too many people get married because it's the "romantic" thing to do or because it's the "normal" thing to do, and don't think about the actual day-to-day affects of that and how to individualize it for themselves.

    Also, I was still reading Glamour back when they published that "engagement chicken" article, and I laughed my ass of that a national magazine would actually publish something so ridiculous! ReplyCancel

  • FallingintoFavor - Wow. I pretty much agree with your entire post. Marriage is not a one-way pursuit!

    I know a young lady who desperately wants to be married to the man she is with, they even have a child and have been together over 5 years. Still not married. Being honest and having open communication and showing love and respect : the way to go. A man is going to marry a women because he wants to! At least that (among other things) is what my husband of 10 months told me. Why popular media paints such an ugly picture is beyond me.

    I did the no engagement ring route, in a way. We talked about that before and I told him I'd like to wear a nice classy band. So when he proposed thats what he presented me. And that was my engagement ring and now wedding ring. We also did a simple wedding because we felt we only needed close family and God to witness our union. Plus, a nice honeymoon (travel) and down payment for a house were things we valued more.

  • Abigail - Well, unlike you, Well-Heeled, and Falling into Favor, my husband and I actually BOTH went the engagement ring route. I said that if I was marked as "hands-off" he had to be too. He laughed (because I was kidding) and really was happy that I was giving him an excuse to buy a nice ring. Both of us now wear our engagement ring on our right hand and our wedding rings on our left. (My engagement ring is square-ish with small diamonds inset, so we have more or less given up on finding a ring that will fit around it, until we're willing to pay for one to be made..)

    As far as marriage, I've always been a little terrified by the picture painted by the media. Which is to say, I thought it was horrendously skewed/out of date. But my husband assures me that he had friends who were "trapped" into either a relationship or marriage by an pregnancy. As in, the girl was planning for it, the guy wasn't. He says he even knew some girls who were sabotaging their condoms. Eek.

    One pair of his friends finally got married after being together since high school. They were late 20s. They'd had some break-ups in between, but they had two kids together. She was really mad that I got married before she did. Not mad at me, but frustrated in general. I kept pointing out that, compared to a piece of paper, a kid is far more commitment. But she needed that piece of paper.

    Honestly, I would definitely want the official marriage, too. But, then again, I wouldn't stick around with someone for years who I knew was a commitment-phobe. (He was self-proclaimed.) And hope that he changes his mind. It makes no sense. It's like choosing a guy who has said he doesn't want kids, hoping he'll feel differently one day. It's a bad bet and you're risking two people's happiness on it.


  • Vee - I'm loving this post. I think a lot about my roles and my fiance's in our home, and they are pretty much split as gender rules would have them. He does the car stuff, the mowing, the snow-shoveling, and I cook, clean and do the dishes (with help from him, when he's not busy doing something else that contributes). I think that quote from the NYT puts it so perfectly. I love to cook. I've never mowed a lawn in my life. And I am clumsy with the snow-shovel. He never reads the directions on anything so is likely to screw up dinner without my supervision. We might as well do what we're good at, right? I don't want to give up cooking and start mowing just to be a feminist, I just want to appreciate that I have a choice.

    PS: Received my book from you the other day – Thanks again!!!!!! ReplyCancel

  • MoneyHoneySF - Thanks for posting this. It's so true that these stereotypes are ingrained in our society. It's through so many generations stating that the man is the breadwinner and the wife is the homecarer. That woman's biological clock ticks louder after 30 needing to be married or have children. The man on the other hand always have it good. They can take their time to select the right mate. Thus, the perception that a woman tend to want to trap a man into marrying her because time is not on her side.

    So no matter how we try to sway from these stereotypes, it's mostly true and hard to not associate with. ReplyCancel

  • Why This 25 Year Old Should NOT Try To Make Extra Money - […] Marriage and Money – Making it Work […]ReplyCancel

  • Alicia - I wrote a similar blog post about finacial questions before marriage :)

  • In a Relationship, Does It Matter Who Makes More Money? | Well Heeled Blog - […] are research and anecdotal evidence that says men prefer women who make less money and women prefer men who make more money. When I was young I thought that was silly – especially men who wanted their spouse who makes […]ReplyCancel

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