When Incomes Differ
Dear Dr. Hurd,
I met a guy on line about a year and-a-half ago and we really hit it off, in spite of a difference between our incomes (he makes a lot more than I do). We got excited about getting married and had a beautiful wedding on the beach in P’Town last year. We (well, he) even bought a house, and I contribute as much as I can to the mortgage and the upkeep. My question is this: I’m beginning to see changes in his personality that worry me. He loses his temper over the smallest things, and has started throwing the “income” thing in my face when we argue. I try really hard to conserve money, and I think it irritates him even more when I question how he spends “his” money. I’m just trying to help. Am I doing something to make this happen?
Dr. Hurd replies:
First of all, don’t jump to conclusions. The fact that your partner brings up money in an argument doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s the real issue. Think about it: A short time ago he made a serious commitment to you, knowing full well that you earn what you earn. If this had been a deal-breaker for him, he wouldn’t be married to you now. You’re assuming that the reason he’s all of a sudden upset with you is because of money, but I’m sensing an implied defensiveness from you when you say, “I’m doing all I can.” If I pick this up so strongly just from your short email, imagine how your spouse must feel, dealing with it every day.
We all bear the responsibility to communicate, especially in a committed relationship. So let’s try to shift some of that responsibility back onto your partner—in a nice, non-defensive way. The key here is “non-defensive!” Defensiveness fails every time and just makes things worse. Being reasonable almost always works, at least with anyone who’s basically rational, levelheaded, and sincerely invested in the relationship. So why not say something to him like, “I notice that you bring up money when we argue. Do you have an issue about that? I’m willing to talk about it. Or maybe it’s something else. I’m ready to talk about whatever is on your mind.” Yes, this seems so simple and so obvious, but in my experience, it’s the last thing couples end up doing—assuming they even do it at all.
Don’t be afraid of his answer. Who knows? Maybe it is about money. If it is, then you’ll deal with it together. In a money issue, remember that it’s not “you against him.” It’s you against the “marketplace,” which simply pays what it pays. Some people make more money than others. Incomes can increase, of course, but sometimes that can take years. Why fight over things you can’t change? This is why I suspect that the issue is something other than money, because, as I said earlier, he knew how much you made when he married you. It’s not like you misled or surprised him, so why would he suddenly be bothered by it now?
Let’s dig a little deeper. He might be annoyed or disappointed with you over some thing (or things) he feels that you would consider trivial. Disappointment in the first year of a union is not unusual. It’s not all that different from the proverbial “buyer’s remorse” that people experience after entering into a long-term commitment like a house or a new car. So why might somebody not feel the same way about something so much more important (and even more long-term) like a marriage? Though it may sound harsh to speak in terms of “buyer’s remorse” when it comes to what’s supposed to be one of the biggest commitments of one’s life, it’s often the painful but honest truth. You fall in love, and, consumed by the warm glow of romance found, you imagine your new partner (and the prospect of a future with him or her) to be more perfect than it really is—or could ever possibly be. So what? That’s life’s fault, not the relationship’s. There are always good reasons to end relationships, but we don’t end them simply because they fail to live up to fantasized standards of unrealistic perfection.
Give your partner (and yourself, by the way) room to be a little disappointed. Unless he is, in fact, a chronic abuser, or there’s some deeper issue you haven’t told me about, this is not a catastrophe over the long-term. Open up and talk it out. Disappointment can coexist with love, and, over time, most disappointment eventually fades away as love becomes dominant again.
Dr. Michael J. Hurd is a psychotherapist, life coach and author. His office can be reached at 302-227-2829. Email your questions or comments to DrHurd@DrHurd.com.