My girlfriend flaunts her money

She's very Wall Street and I'm very nonprofit.

Published December 21, 2004 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

My girlfriend and I are both 48 but have ended up in very different places in our lives. I work for a small arts nonprofit and eke out a barely middle-class living. I like what I do, think that it's good work and continue to look for a more lucrative position. No slacker, I freelance on the side for extra cash and am finishing up a graduate degree in administration to increase my chances of moving up the career ladder. But I harbor no illusions about making a killing by working in the woefully underfunded nonprofit arts sector. My girlfriend worked like a maniac on Wall Street, made a pile and is currently following her bliss taking care of animals.

Although she's not actively involved in amassing wealth, her day-to-day conversation is filled with references to the private jets, expensive cars and great restaurants she used to frequent, the expensive watches she still "collects" and the problems of owning a million-dollar house -- all of which drives me up a wall. She likes to look at real estate she can buy. I am glad to have a rent-controlled apartment. She is mad because she believes I think she is an asshole for having money. I just want her to stop the money/stuff chat because it makes me feel like a poor relation and reminds me about all the stuff I can't have. I admit that I also feel like an asshole because although I hate the talk, I like the expensive restaurants, the nice hotels and the ski trips to Colorado, all on her dime (none of which I can afford on my own). To be clear, this is not a gender thing -- we're both women.

Are we hopelessly mismatched classwise?

The Pauper and the Princess

Dear Pauper,

I don't think you're hopelessly mismatched classwise. I just think you both want to excel and do good in the world but have gone about it in different ways.

For her, doing good in the world has to do with acquiring money. Money has given her the freedom to do something she feels will improve the world -- to care for animals. For you, doing good has to do with helping artists connect with audiences. Your work is more directly connected to your values; hers has been more a means to an end. But you both want to improve the world and express your compassion and love of beauty. For her, beauty is expressed in tangible form, as houses and jewelry and exclusive resorts; for you it has more to do with new ideas and modes of expression.

You also both desire safety and security, but while she equates safety and security with having the money for cars and houses in good neighborhoods, for you safety and security come through nurturing a strong social network and taking advantage of government regulations designed to protect the weak from the strong. You probably both value power and status as well. But while she exercises the power of the purse, and displays her status through acquiring tangible things, you exercise your power by influencing the ideas that will come before the public, and you display your status by publicly associating with artists who shape the culture.

So what we've got here is two high-status women in a love relationship trying to negotiate issues of economic and cultural power without the help -- or hindrance -- of traditional gender roles. Under other circumstances, it would be tempting to say she's just a man doing what a man naturally does. Instead, we must look at what's actually happening in the moment -- which is really cool! Traditional gender roles might just muddy the waters.

What do you feel when you are with her and she is talking about her money? Do you feel your own powerlessness and begin to doubt if you've made the right decisions? You enjoy what her money buys, but what about the conflict you feel when you realize you can't buy those things yourself? Do you secretly fear that you haven't been willing to do what it takes to get the money you would like to have? And when you think about her, do you sometimes feel that her success and her generosity have more to do with gaining power over other people than with genuine achievement and giving?

And what are some of her darker thoughts? Is she aware that acquiring money and power cannot forestall the more existential threats we all face? Is she compensating for certain insecurities and fears based in childhood? And when she thinks about you, does she see your failure to make a lot of money as a failure of courage, or of foresight? Does she feel sometimes that the reason you don't have more money is that you're just lazy and selfish?

It might be quite an emotional conversation if you gave voice to some of these thoughts. So you need to first establish a safe conversation zone. Go somewhere quiet, private and safe and take some time; sit down and agree to just let the other person talk; agree that it's possible to both love each other and have dark, disturbing thoughts about each other. Agree to let each other talk through these things without fear of reprisal. If each of you can sit and hear what the other is actually experiencing, and resist the urge to defend yourself, you can learn something useful: It's not the end of the world to be selfish or power hungry. And everybody has dark thoughts about other people.

The crux of it is, I think, that each of you is made a little uncomfortable by the nature of the other's success. That's quite natural; other people's success reminds us of our shortcomings. We don't generally appreciate being reminded of our shortcomings -- though actually it is very useful to be reminded of our shortcomings. In fact, if we were saints we would always say, "Thank you so much, dear loved one, for reminding me of my many shortcomings!"

Alas, we are not saints.

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