Many couples today are facing a new source of relational strain - income disparity. When one partner earns more than the other, how both partners perceive, react to and interact with that income gap can determine the relative health of the relationship itself. For different gender partnerships, when the woman earns more there can be additional stress involved. As well, as traditional gender roles continue to evolve and transform, income can play a larger role in determining household responsibilities.

This post will explore what can occur when there is an income gap in any relationship - and some options for repairing any issues that may arise because of it.

Using Earned Income to Assign Value

There is some truth to the assertion that health attracts health - just as wealth attracts wealth. But sometimes the opposite holds true instead - and when two partners are not equally matched in terms of inherent self-worth and self-respect, nearly any issue can serve as fodder for widening the gap.

Income is an especially explosive issue in relationships, and in fact many partners say it is the subject they most frequently argue about. Sadly, today’s culture continues to promote money as a reliable source of power and leverage in relationships of all types. So it can still feel natural to assume the partner who earns the most and contributes the most has the most rights, the most say, the most power in the partnership.

Sadly, this scenario fails to assign value in terms of overall contributions to the relationship and the household in an equitable fashion, especially when both partners do not work outside the home. And it can break otherwise healthy partnerships if left unaddressed.

How to work through it: One way to take the focus off how much green paper either partner brings home is to assign value-as-if to other tasks - for instance, caring for the children, cleaning the home, paying the bills - as if the couple is paying a professional to do it.

Here, the partner staying home with the kids is contributing, let’s say, “$20,000 a year” that would otherwise be spent in nanny services if both partners worked outside the home. This can help level the income playing field in terms of each partner’s relative overall contribution, and equal out the balance of perceived power.

Using Income to Define Partner Roles

If both partners work outside the home, it can be tempting to place pressure on the one who earns less to do more outside of work hours. This can be exacerbated when the partner who earns less is also female and there are traditional gender role expectations at work.

When the partner who earns more is also female (in a different-gender partnership) and there are traditional gender roles in play, this can translate to mean that, in addition to bearing the pressure of contributing the lion’s share of household income, the female partner also bears more responsibility for checking homework, cooking dinner, cleaning, ferrying kids around and more.

Either scenario can spell disaster for two-income relationships today.

How to work through it: The best approach begins with a simple list of all child- and household-related tasks, followed by an evaluation of each partner’s interests and aptitudes. Factoring in the helps from the previous section can help to ease stereotypes about “traditional” gender roles and assign financial value to each item on the list. From here, the couple can begin divvying up necessary tasks in a more sensible and equitable fashion.

Sneaking Around Financially on a Partner

As it turns out, “financial infidelity” is becoming a major player in the demise of many relationships today.

When one partner spends in secret, stashes some cash in a solo account, makes big ticket purchases without clearing it with their partner first and engages in other similar types of financial “cheating,” it is just a matter of time before evidence surfaces, the cheating partner is caught and conflict arises. Issues with credit and debt are equally to blame for much of today’s financial infidelity, and can be even bigger trust-breakers since one partner’s credit and debt can have long-term impact on the other as well.

How to work through it: If there are traditional gender roles at work (see previous section) this can be an even tougher issue to address, but under any conditions, the secrecy cloaking this issue makes it difficult to even bring the topic up. Couples cannot address a problem they don’t realize exists. For partners who suspect their significant other is engaging in financial infidelity, it can be helpful to involve an objective third party - preferably a professional trained in marital or relationship counseling - before attempting a confrontation or intervention.

Letting Financial Ego Steal the Show

As financial infidelity becomes more of a problem, financial ego is increasingly coming along for the ride as well. “Financial ego” basically means that one or both partners view the partner who earns the higher salary as more important in the relationship.

This can translate to mean that the partner who earns more gets “excused” from tasks - even those they agreed to take on, earns a free pass for bad behavior or is exempted from pulling their weight in the home and family. The partner who earns less, in turn, begins to feel truly lesser than - less respected, less important, less worthy of voicing their wants and needs.

As this form of income gap widens, one partner may begin to feel like a dependent than an equal partner. In the same way, one partner may begin to feel more like a parent than an equal partner. In either case, the relationship itself is compromised from within by the artificial assignment of earning history as a measure of personal worth.

How to work through it: Here, each partner may discover they have their own separate issues to work through - such as a history of low self-esteem or insecurity leading to a) allowing a partner to put them down or b) finding ways to artificially inflate self-esteem. As well, the couple needs to create a list of other contributions they individually find valuable and desirable outside of straight finances. Put together, these actions can help equalize the partnership once again.

By understanding how income gaps can jeopardize and even destroy relationships, couples can guard against budding issues and take steps to work through existing inequalities. In this way, even a struggling relationship gets a second chance to survive and thrive.

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