Not so long ago, it was considered sensible for a woman to seek a good provider. Nowadays, we’re all expected to pride ourselves on our independence and choose (or mostly choose) someone for love. Any interest in a man’s prospects can feel mercenary.

That's despite the still-shaky economy and even though women still earn less than men. For all the news coverage of the fact that men got hit worse in the latest recession, on balance, men remain ahead.

The term “gold-digger” summons up the image of 22 year olds kissing ancient lips hoping for a fast inheritance. But what do we think about college students entertaining sugar daddies who help cover their tuition? There are more than 50 shades of gray, any number of circumstances in which women (and men) who lack resources enter into relationships they might otherwise not choose.

Gold-digging happens when people are greedy but also when they feel trapped.

A woman I'll call Lorraine still cries when she thinks about how she treated a man we’ll call Dan. At first they were in love, and she was deeply grateful to him. Dan wasn’t attractive, but he was super smart and recognized her intelligence. He encouraged her to go to college, and with his salary as an electrical engineer, he helped her feed the three kids from a previous marriage she bore in her 20s.

Four years later, she no longer loved him--she didn't even like him, but she still needed his financial support. “I wasn’t even nice to him,” she says. “I loathed the way he breathed," she says, and “I have no doubt that this was a projection of my loathing of myself for using him.”

After two years, she was able to get a job that she could do while in graduate school and she asked Dan to leave. Still, he came to her graduation ceremony and told her with tears in his eyes that he was proud of her. “So maybe he got to feel that he did something big for another person—and at a pretty great cost to himself,” she says.

“It was completely against my values,” Lorraine says. “Serial gold-diggers who seek out very wealthy men so obviously for the stuff, that’s different. I do judge them, but then I also judge him.” She adds, “But women who struggle with it, oh I have great, great empathy for them. I understand the pain of it, the cost of it, and I wish no one felt like that was her best option.”

Ellen Walker, Ph.D., a psychologist in Bellingham, Wash., and a blogger here at Psychology Today,  sees many patients who have become financially dependent and feel stuck in unhappy marriages. 

Sometimes, Walker says, the dependent partner was selfish and allowed her mate to work long hours and come home to a messy house and chores. Maybe she tells herself she's an artist but doesn't really work at it. That kind of selfishness breeds resentment, and she may become  defensive--and less secure.  

Whether she (or he) has been selfish, lazy, disabled by anxiety or depression or other problems-- often the reasons are mixed--the consequences can be rough. You want to leave or your partner no longer wants you, but "Your self-esteem has been chipped away over time until you find that you’re not strong enough to make the moves it takes,” says Walker. When the marriage collapses, you can be left without love, cash or confidence.

 Dependency can creep up on you even if you weren’t looking for an escape hatch. When Hank fell in love with the woman who became the mother of his children, he didn’t know she was a trust-fund baby. Eventually, the couple decided that Hank would leave a well-paying job in television for a year to help raise the kids.

But the pair split and he was never able to regain his former income. A month ago, short several hundred on his rent, he had to ask his ex for a loan. “It was depressing and humiliating,” he said. On the plus side, although he’s scratching for cash, he knows his two kids won’t ever suffer—both have trust funds set up by lawyers he’s never met.

 The irony is that gold-digging, often a bid for security, is a big risk. In the classic greedy scenario, both sides are avoiding intimacy, and they may have little in common except a desire for status. “You can’t have a digger without a dug,” says San Jose, Calif. psychotherapist Margaret Cochran, Ph.D.

And the dug can have a dark side.They may be bullies, manipulators and violent. 

To answer the question, “Are you a gold-digger?” take the other person’s point of view. Often they’re somewhat clued in to your terms. “As long as the other person gets something too and feels like the deal is fair, you’re not using them,” Lorraine says. “Also, you know how good it feels to take care of someone, so that’s something to gain, too.”

Be sure you're thinking of the long term. You want to have your own resources, emotionally, and financially. You'll want to be able to contribute if your honey ever runs into trouble. High-fliers crash.  And if your mate feels trapped by having to support you, you'll both be unhappy.

All that said, it's unrealistic to think that we can raise families and take care of elderly parents and both maintain high-paying careers all at the same time. If you're a stay-at-home parent, a caregiver, or dedicated to low-paying work, you know whether you're doing your share. 

Portions of this story appeared at

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