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Let's Talk About Money in Our Intimate Relationships!

3 steps to clarify the financial power dynamic in your relationship

Ryan McGuire/Pixabay
"Whoever has the gold, makes the rules"
Source: Ryan McGuire/Pixabay

Money and intimacy. Two things that don’t always go together smoothly. Money is usually connected to something we want or long for. Money helps us fulfill our longing―for power, for control, for status, for comfort, for safety, for love. It's all about longing. Money is permanently connected to power, as the saying goes: “Whoever has the gold, makes the rules![i]”.

As a couples therapist, I find that the issue of money and power is almost always at play with every couple I encounter[ii]. For some couples, this issue hovers over couples like a dark cloud or shadow, appearing from time to time explicitly, and always in play implicitly. The money/power issue is neither good nor bad, it just is. So it is best if couples admit and address it instead of ignoring or pretending that the issue is not a potent theme in their relationship.

In almost every couple there is one person (let’s refer to them as the $$$ partner) who makes more money than the other partner (called the $ partner), even if both partners work full time. If we look deeper, we usually find that the larger the gap between incomes, the more of an unbalanced power dynamic is at play. If the $ partner is a stay-at-home parent or unemployed, the power dynamic can be even more extreme.

The dynamic often manifests as follows: The $$$ partner implicitly and semi-consciously expects $ partner to compensate for their diminished income by investing extra time in the relationship, the house, the cooking, or the kids. The $ partner is grateful for the extra income their partner makes, but the financial dependence can generate a feeling of guilt which motivates them to constantly show the $$$ partner how essential they are to the household. Ultimately, both partners act out their frustrations with mutual contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling, which relationship researcher John Gottman calls the “Four Horsemen of the apocalypse” and which eventually lead to relationships ending[iii].

How does this dynamic manifest in relationships?

Several years ago I worked with a couple who married in their early 20s and after being together 15 years, she fell in love with another man. They came to therapy to think about how to continue together as a couple. He was a teacher who worked overtime in several different educational jobs and was the main breadwinner (the $$$ partner). She was a lawyer by training but was under-employed by design so she could concentrate on her hobbies (the $ partner). They never really spoke about the financial imbalance in their relationship. He never openly complained; she never shared her constant guilt and shame. It took a self-sabotaging move of a potential affair for her to see her husband’s exhaustion and for her husband to see her sense of indebtedness.

In our sessions, when the $$$ partner shared his anger and threatened divorce, the $ partner suddenly realized her total financial dependence. After doing the math of financial independence the $ partner faced the fact that divorce would mean a lower standard of living without the hobbies and treats she had enjoyed while in her marriage. Her choice then became whether to continue the potential affair or to return to her marriage including the original financial contract. The $$$ partner was happy to keep on funding her hobbies, as long as she ended the affair and recommitted to him. Therapy ended with the $ partner ending her affair and looking for extra work, while the $$$ partner continued to pay for her hobbies. They were not willing to further explore (or challenge) their historical money/power dynamic.

How is does the power dynamic develop in relationships?

The $ partner by choice or by design earns less. This choice could be a result of priorities like necessities of the $$$ partner’s career, child-rearing philosophy, or simply circumstance. In the beginning, this gap is often discussed and even agreed upon by both partners. Sometimes the $ partner overtly enjoys the standard of living they receive.

Yet over time, though, the $ partner might begin to feel defensive, guilty, or even angry at the unspoken demands for gratitude from the $$$ partner. Slowly, the $ partner might begin to feel trapped in a “golden cage,” where their partner’s money becomes the cage that locks them in. The $ partner may express this feeling through sarcasm or passive-aggressive behavior.

Ironically, the wealthier the $$$ partner becomes, the wider the gap and subsequent pressure on $ partner may be, resulting in more passive-aggressive behaviors toward the $$$ partner. A lack of job fulfillment for the $ partner further adds to their dissatisfaction and the blame game expands to include their overall life dissatisfaction.

Often, the $ partner will try restore balance to the power dynamic by criticizing (devaluing) the $$$ partner: in terms of parenting skills (“you’re never with the kids, and they don’t trust you”), intellect (“all you talk about is work”), emotional depth (“you have no feelings! You are like a child”), commitment to the relationship (“we never go out”), lovemaking abilities (“”we aren’t close anymore; we are never intimate”). These depreciations become the tax that the $$$ partners pay for their financial superiority. Such disparaging comments and behaviors are essentially misguided strategies to cry for help that inevitably create more distance, contempt and criticism.

Oftentimes, the $$$ partner openly encourages the $ partner to do what they want, to do whatever makes them happy. Over time, though, the $$$ partner may unconsciously start to judge, test, and even resent the $ partner for being less successful or even lazy. The resentment only worsens as the $ partner uses negative strategies and behaviors to cover up their own feelings of guilt (even inadequacy) in the relationship. The $$$ partner’s negative behavior unfolds differently according to how much they enjoy their higher-paying job:

  1. $$$ loves their job - If $$$ person loves the job that they’re doing, there will usually be an implicit sense of benevolent power. All the while, they might have an implicit expectation to be openly appreciated for the financial security they provide the family. This creates an unformulated pressure on the $ partner to constantly praise and express their gratitude to the $$$ partner.
  2. $$$ hates their job – If $$$ hates their job then their bitterness and contempt for the $ partner are exacerbated. They often will feel like they're sacrificing themselves only because it is on them to pay the bills. Therefore, they sometimes unleash their frustration on the $ partner, through explicit judgment, aggression and sometimes even violence.
Ignoring the financial imbalance will eventually erupt and be acted out negatively.
Source: klimkin/Pixabay

If you ignore the financial imbalance and pretend it's not there, it's going to surface as passive-aggressive behavior that will eventually build up and erupt as negative behaviors, either between the partners or even involving the kids.

What can be done?

First of all, do not ignore or begin acting out. If you talk about the imbalance of economic power, at least there is a chance to address the deeper power issue while minimizing the repercussions. Here are three steps that can help you start to address the dynamic of money/power in your intimate relationships:

  1. The $ partner–know your worth. Calculate whether your income covers your personal expenses of food, clothing, transportation, hobbies, etc. (not including overall house or kids expenses).

    a. If you cover your personal expenses, then you can feel confident enough to talk to your loved one about this topic and see what issues are not being discussed and how they experience the financial power dynamic.

    b. If you are not covering your personal expenses, then that could explain why this topic is not openly discussed. Appreciate that you are dependent on your partner to maintain your lifestyle. In such cases, there may be implicit and perpetual guilt on the part of the $ partner. Consider that guilt and dependence. How does it make you feel? Then open this topic with the $$$ partner. How is the power financial dynamic being experienced by both of you? Where do you feel small and indebted? Where do you feel not worthy (in relation to them)? Where do you feel that you contributing to the relationship in different ways? How do you experience the $$$ partner? How do they experience you? This may not be a quick fix, but verbalizing it is the first step.

    c. If you are not currently working then ask yourself what are my priorities these days? What is more important for me than making money? Why am I not working? In what ways am I contributing to this relationship? Write down these answers for yourself. Remember that each partner contributes differently to the household: Someone brings in financial income, but someone also has to bring in the nurture, parenting, artistic, and playful income into the home. Find a way to feel stable enough with your answers to share them with the $$$ partner.

  2. Name it to tame it. Once you have openly shared your feelings, allow your partner to reflect and share their experience. Remember, this is a topic couples rarely address openly, so give it time. Next, you can slowly start discussing and renegotiating your agreements, compromises, or boundaries surrounding the financial power dynamic.
  3. If either partner wants to change the division of money (and financial power) in your relationship, realize this will be a major change in your dynamic. This is termed a second-order change, which disrupts the homeostasis. Resistance from your partner should not be construed as a lack of love. It is often just the reality of systems change, where each partner has secondary gains from the current equilibrium, especially if this has been an ongoing, long-term status. (click here or below for a short video explaining how to manifest a systematic second-order change in your life).

In closing, if money is about longing, then I wish you to long to find different ways to fulfill the longing for a sense of belonging, partnership, love, respect, power, interdependence, freedom and agency.


[ii] In heterosexual couples this dynamic is often made more extreme by the gender imbalance, which is beyond the scope of this article.

[iii] Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the country's foremost relationship expert. Harmony.


Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the country's foremost relationship expert. Harmony.

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