Does less of a paycheck make him less of a man?

My partner of 16 years and I have always shared equally, but since he got laid off, it's as if I'm now wearing the pants.


Cary Tennis
November 16, 2006 5:00PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I am in a relationship that is 16 years old. I have three children with this man and overall the relationship is excellent. I love him to death and I know he loves me in return. We are well suited for each other, we both have our individuality, we have separate lives, friends, outings and the such. Yet we come together as any couple should for the children, friends and outings.

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He was laid off from his job back in December of 2005. He was making a decent amount of income and was contributing to our household expenses. He received severance pay, which kept us afloat for some time, helped with some expenses, let us catch up with bills. At the same time he was looking for a job that would pay close to what he was getting. He tried out some jobs, left them and then tried others. He currently is employed but this job doesn't pay what he was making before nor does it cover the enormous debt he has accumulated during his time of unemployment.

I have a good-paying job. I make decent money and I cover my expenses well. This is where the problem starts. We decided at the time of our commitment that I would have my money and he would have his. What was needed for the house and children would be equally split. As of late I have been taking on more responsibilities. It is no longer equal. He has come to me various times asking for money to cover the rent, bills, etc. I still have my responsibilities and now I have this added load.

I told him that I hated making my money and giving it to him. I was emotional at the time. I reminded him that we had a shared responsibility but that I felt I was taking on more and more, yet his debt never seemed to be diminished.

My questions are: Have I gotten together with a man who is not being a man? Not taking financial responsibilities? Am I the "man" in this relationship? If so where does that leave him? What can I do to help him feel better (I think I might have squashed his ego)?

Financial Difficulties!!!

Dear Financial Difficulties,

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Since you've been together for 16 years and have three kids, even though you aren't married your relationship is a lot like a marriage. You live together, raise kids together, take care of each other and try to get through the bad times that come up. And you try to be flexible enough so that your relationship can survive the inevitable changes that are going to occur over a decade and a half.

So some changes have happened. You did indeed make this agreement at the beginning that you would contribute equally. But apparently it's not possible for him to contribute equally now. It sounds like this is upsetting to you. You hadn't counted on this. But I would put it in the category of things that happen in a long-term relationship that you can't count on and you have to find a way to deal with constructively together.

Money is really a ball-buster, though. It's very hard to deal with. I'm sure he feels awful about asking you for money. It's not like he's been irresponsible. It's not like he was always a slacker or something. He's hit some bad luck. It's not that he's not being a man. He's just a person who had some bad luck. But he might feel like less of a man. You are not the "man" in this relationship. You are just a person who has had good luck so far.

You and he can work this out. What you can do to help him feel better is tell him what you want, in tangible ways, so that he can continue to give you what you want. Ask yourself what you really want from him.

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Do you want an acknowledgment that yes, indeed, you really did have this agreement? I mean, is he acting like you never agreed to share expenses equally? He might be. This is probably very hard on his pride, and he may prefer to pretend that nothing has really changed.

Do you want some kind of timetable, or promise, about when he will be able to contribute what he used to contribute? It might be impossible to know with certainty when he'll be back on his feet economically, but at the same time you might want some timetable, or framework for your expectations: Say, at this date, if he still doesn't have a better job, you're going to make some changes -- not because you want to, or because you're mad at him, but because this situation is just something you can't deal with and, frankly, something you never agreed to deal with -- for that is where your situation differs from a marriage.

Although you've been together 16 years, you never promised "till death do us part." You never made explicit promises witnessed by others on a sunny day on some hillside or in some church. So what you probably have is a collection of expectations that grow naturally over time. It's like a natural garden: You didn't plant this stuff, necessarily, but still it grew, and some of it is great. But some of it you didn't really notice. It just grew there. The expectation that you and he will stay together and take care of each other no matter what happens may have just kind of grown there. So when trouble comes up, you're not sure what to do.

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So you might also ask yourself this: Did you expect that you and he would stay together always, no matter what happened? Is that what he expected as well? Or were there always conditions, has it always been contingent on things going smoothly? And what do your kids expect? Did they expect you to stay together, or have they always understood that you might part if things got rough?

I hope you search your heart and try to understand what you really want from him that he can give you. He can't give you the money right now. He doesn't have it. But perhaps he can give you reassurance, acknowledgment, a timetable. Perhaps he can give you a full hearing. Perhaps he can give you a massage. He can give you a lot of things. It's your job, now, to tell him what those things are. If he wants to stay in the relationship -- and it sounds like it is a good relationship and one worth staying in --I predict he will do his darnedest to give you what you want, once you are able to tell him what it is.

The one thing he can't do is turn back the clock.

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