Being in a serious relationship can and should change you.
There are so many positive changes that can come about from being in a healthy and happy relationship, but you’ve got to expect some challenges too.
In my relationship, money sometimes creates a problem – or, rather, I’ve managed to turn money into a problem.
I’ve always seen myself as an independent career-woman, and it turns out far more of my self-worth was wrapped up in that image than I realised.
My partner earns significantly more than me, and suddenly I found that my career – while still rewarding and enjoyable – wasn’t really bringing anything to the table.
My partner never makes me feel bad about it, in fact he’s often more proud of my work successes than I am, but the situation still niggles at my self-esteem (and my feminist sensibilities – dammit, how did I end up letting a man pay for my holidays?).
I’ve spoken to friends in similar situations and many of them feel the same.
Women are no longer raised to expect a man to support us, yet men still feel a responsibility to provide for their family. So neither party is particularly pleased to find themselves on the lower-earning end of the scale.
Whether you feel you should be the breadwinner depends on your ‘internal models, in other words, what we observed and experienced with our parental models,’ says Shirlee Kay, couples and individual psychotherapist at Coupleworks.
Our perception of gender roles can play a part in heterosexual relationships. ‘If the man believes he should be the breadwinner and his partner is earning more,’ Shirlee continues, ‘there may be confusion and problems between a couple.
‘I had one couple where the woman was a high earner, and the husband’s continual undermining chipped away at her self-esteem and the relationship.
‘It was only when they were able to discuss this in couple’s therapy that they began to understand what beliefs they had brought into the relationship and how this was affecting their sense of identity and self-worth.’
But gender expectations aside, an imbalance in earnings can cause some tension in any couple.
‘Money is often seen as power, and the imbalance of earnings can sometimes create difficulties in relationships if not addressed and worked through between couples,’ Shirlee says.
Rachel Davies, a counsellor and senior practicing consultant at Relate, stresses that the money itself is usually not the problem, saying ‘it’s usually more like a symptom of a wider problem.’
That wider problem can stem back to all kinds of things. ‘If you’re quite competitive people then it can become a real thing that one of you is earning more, because that’s how your relationship is, you’re competitive with each other.
‘And then that becomes what we need to work on in the couple’s counselling.’
The other cause of tension could be when couples aren’t valuing what their partner brings to the relationship.
‘If we think of the word ‘currency’ very broadly,’ Rachel says, ‘then currency can include emotional support, it can include doing the childcare, it can include all the stuff you do for the house, the jobs and the chores that need to get done to run your lives.
‘One person may be doing a lot more of that stuff, and that would be their currency that they’re bringing into the relationship, and the other person might be earning more.
‘Sometimes it can be a wider issue that those things aren’t being appreciated.’
Shirlee Kay agrees. ‘It can cause resentment, a sense that one partner is contributing more than the other and guilt that one’s earnings are not good enough.’
So it’s vital that both partners appreciate the other, and – crucially – let the other know that you appreciate them and their contribution to the relationship.
But the big issue here, that I started with at the beginning, is self-worth.
Having less money than your partner and having to occasionally rely on them for financial support can make you feel robbed of control, or guilty for being a burden, or just generally feeling a bit crap about yourself.
For some couples, this isn’t a problem at all. Both are perfectly happy to share resources and everything works out smoothly. This is the dream.
But for many, it causes some self-esteem issues.
‘If you’ve got somebody who’s got low self-esteem,’ says Rachel Davies, ‘who never feels good enough, who always feels that they’re one step behind and they’re maybe being judged, then all that sort of psychological stuff can get played out if they’re in a relationship with someone who earns more.’
Luckily, there are things both you and your partner can do to mitigate those feelings of low self-worth.
Firstly, TALK ABOUT IT.
‘The biggest mistake couples make is to let their feeling fester and grow,’ says Shirlee Kay.
When that happens, people have a tendency to lash out. ‘Usually, because people are unconscious of their feelings, they react and hit out, rather than learn to name and accept the feelings and communicate them to their partner,’ Shirlee says.
If you’ve become convinced that your partner thinks less of you because you earn less, you need to address it.
Rachel Davies says, ‘you might say to them ‘you probably think I’m a total failure because I haven’t had a promotion in two years and you seem to get one every three months,’ and they turn round and say ‘no, I love you for who you are, it’s not an issue’.
‘But you need to hear that from them.’
The higher-earning person also has a responsibility to be considerate of their partner’s feelings. This might be hard if you want to take your partner on fancy dates or holidays.
‘You might want to treat your partner, because you might say well I earn more, so it’s fine to do that,’ Rachel says.
‘If you know they’re going to feel uncomfortable about that, try and talk to them about it.
‘But if they still feel uncomfortable then you might need to lower what you’re suggesting so it’s something you can both contribute to, and then it’s building equality in.
‘I think even the higher earner has a responsibility to be sensitive to that.’
More: Mental health
Equality in a relationship is key, even if your finances are unequal.
It’s crucial that you find that equality and respect for each other if you want a healthy relationship.
And remember, if you need a little help getting there, you should never feel ashamed to need or want therapy or couple’s counselling.
Relate offers counselling services for every type of relationship nationwide.
Coupleworks is a specialised London-based relationship counselling network.