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Income InequalityEvery couple is different, but many have conflicts over the same three things: money, sex, and children. Money conflicts are a major cause of divorce. When one partner earns more than the other, this can impact relationship dynamics. The higher earner may have a job that pays significantly more. Or one partner may pause a career to raise children or pursue further education. Unemployment, illness, or disability can also cause an income gap between the two. Your relationship doesn’t have to suffer, but it’s important to understand your situation – and the issues that come with income inequality.

Income and Relationship Power Dynamics

In an ideal world, income gaps between romantic partners would never be an issue. But we don’t live in an ideal world. The gender pay gap is real: Pew Research Center reveals that women earned 82% of what men earned in 2019. Often in female-male couples, this results in the woman earning less. On the flip side, about 30% of American women married to men were the higher earners. Meanwhile, LGBTQ couples can also experience income inequality between partners.

Power struggles can accompany such significant income differences. Many of us grow up believing that money equals power. If that assumption goes unchecked, the higher earner may drive the couple’s decision-making process. Money Crashers mentions how this can play out in relationship dynamics – the bigger earner ends up making all the decisions. Whether from guilt or socialization, lower-earning partners may step back and let it happen. But there’s also the possibility that the higher earner could lord it over the other partner.  

Money, Power Play, and Resentment

In romantic relationships, income inequality can set the stage for resentment between partners. Our emotions about money may be a contributing factor. Clever Girl Finance details the most common negative feelings: anxiety, insecurity, and fear. Anger, regret, shame, embarrassment, and jealousy can follow closely behind.

None of this is surprising, given that our families of origin shape how we think and feel about money. The Chime blog breaks this down further. A childhood in which money was scarce can produce a wide range of outcomes. You could develop healthy frugal habits, or conversely, become afraid of money. It may be hard to delay gratification, so you spend money freely while you have it. You could unconsciously replicate your parents’ behaviors. If the higher-earning parent controlled the purse strings, you may believe that this is perfectly normal – and do the same thing in your relationship.

Such deep-seated emotions and beliefs about money can lead to relationship conflict. If you’re the higher earner, you may think that you need to control the spending – and not even realize it. You may also develop a sense of entitlement. These attitudes can color how you view your partner’s discretionary spending. Even if it’s within reasonable limits, you may unconsciously see it as frivolous. Lower-earning partners may develop guilt over spending anything and, as a result, not get their needs met. Either scenario can cause resentment.

Breaking the Cycle

You may not be able to change income inequality in your relationship – but you can change how you deal with it. And to do that, you must take steps to separate money from power. Money Crashers’ Casey Slide offers some great tips:

  • Communicate openly and in a loving, respectful manner.
  • Share both your needs and feelings.
  • Develop a budget together.
  • Schedule regular household finance meetings.
  • Create a system to reward each partner for staying within budget.
  • Divide housework in a fair, equitable way.
  • Make major spending decisions together.

Collaboration and Mutual Respect

Power struggles, especially involving money, are unhealthy in any relationship. Within marriages, it often leads to divorce. A collaborative approach is an important key to combating these problems. It involves equal effort and input from both parties, regardless of who earns more.

Category: Marriage

money self care relationships finance

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