For richer or poorer?

I never thought money mattered in my relationship. But when my husband lost his job, I considered leaving him.

By Marisa Belger

Published January 10, 2009 9:49AM (EST)

For the first few months of my relationship with John we never thought about money. I mean, what use would it be when we had everything we needed already? His spacious studio apartment on the wrong side of Venice Beach had a comfortable queen-sized bed (where we spent most of our time), a shower with plenty of hot water and a fluffy gray carpet that begged to be rolled upon. Mostly we stayed inside, eating easy, inexpensive foods that will forever be sexy: chicken breasts broiled with mozzarella and basil, green salads strewn with edible flowers from the farmers' market, big hunks of chocolate.

When not at home, we could be found cruising in his 1998 beige pickup truck -- complete with crew cab, functioning CD player and room for two surfboards. Here we'd belt out Bruce Springsteen ballads and wiggle in our seats to old hip-hop songs. John never flinched when I put my hot feet on the cool dashboard. And I thought it was sexy when he steered with his knees as he put sugar in his coffee. We stopped only for milkshakes or gas, and when we did he paid, but sometimes I did too.

Between the truck and the queen-sized bed was John -- always John. We met, covered in dust and sequins at the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. And by fate or luck or chance, a week later I flew to Los Angeles, where John was then living, and soon I was sharing spicy tuna rolls with him in tiny Japanese restaurants on the west side of the city. We also drank beers on the beach, went for long rides on Highway 1, and made out like teenagers who expected their parents to walk in at any second. I fell hard for his blue eyes. He made me laugh until I ached.

But through the foggy haze of brand-new love-lust, I couldn't help but notice a few key facts about John's finances: (1) he wasn't a rich man (rich men don't live in neighborhoods where hourly motels outnumber residential buildings); (2) his work in sales for a popular sports drink company rendered him gainfully employed albeit minimally compensated; and (3) after a loose attempt at breaking into acting, he had no long-term professional goals.

This information did little to dissuade me from professing my love or encouraging him to break his lease, drive cross-country and move into my studio in Manhattan.

I owned that studio, purchased with the help of my mother and stepfather. Comfortably upper-middle-class, they had given me a plush suburban childhood complete with yearly vacations, a car at 17 and both bachelor's and master's degrees with no lingering loans. When I met John, I had already lived in France and the Netherlands, vacationed regularly in Mexico and the Caribbean, and toured far-off locales like South Africa and Korea.

John had been out of the country exactly once. He went to college at a local school in New Jersey and worked each summer repairing roofs or installing stainless-steel kitchen appliances. He was a terrible student with an ADD-like inability to focus on a text or write a paper. He took his first job when he was six -- sweeping up a family friend's butcher shop -- and many more followed. Some involved manual labor, others were sales or marketing. All were short-lived.

Later I would wonder if John didn't miss having money because it was never there in the first place. His mother, divorced in her 30s, struggled to raise three kids while maintaining the overhead on their rambling, unfinished house. His grandparents, who lived down the street, often stepped in with a necessary hot meal. John was eligible for his school's free lunch. He called himself poor.

But he wasn't lonely. His family was big -- huge, actually. My parents were warm, but I had never seen people enjoy each other like John's clan did. People got drunk and danced on tables. A current of loyalty and dedication swept through this crowd where first cousins were best friends and spouses were sucked into the fold. Suddenly I found myself with 30 new people who would do anything for me.

John asked me to marry him one year to the day after we met, and I didn't hesitate, saying, yes, yes, yes, I would be honored and humbled to share my life with you. Our wedding would be 10 months later at a sprawling inn by the Hudson River in upstate New York. My parents would pay for the lavish affair -- all we had to do was show up.

I knew couples who had allowed their finances to infiltrate their union like an evil ménage à  trois. But that wasn't the way it was with us. Even newly engaged, money continued to have almost no influence on our relationship. I attributed some of it to what I believed were my exceptionally reasonable needs. I prided myself on being low-maintenance, a truly modern woman. As long as I had the flexibility to go out to dinner once in a while -- at an average establishment, nothing fancy -- and to buy the occasional treat, like a pair of boots or a plane ticket to visit a girlfriend in L.A., I considered myself lucky. So, when John lost his job three days before our wedding, I barely winced. We'd just charge our honeymoon on the credit cards that I'd recently cleared, and we'd pay them off when he was back on track. No problem.

In the beginning, adapting to our shrunken income was fun. Really. I'd make us big bowls of pasta with garlicky tomato sauce and remind John that this was what peasants ate in Italy. We'd drink cheap wine and snuggle up on the couch, laughing because kissing was free. It was romantic. Really. In bed, before falling asleep, we'd softly sing the famous lyric from that cheesy 70s folk song: "Even though we ain't got money, I'm so in love with you, honey." And we meant it.

But then things changed. I'll never know if something inside of me shifted, or if it was the revealing of a truth that was already there, but as John moved into month two of his search for work, I was suddenly and clearly not OK. As a freelance writer, I barely supported myself. Sustaining the two of us left me crumpled on the floor at the end of each month, surrounded by bills that were impossible to pay. I tried to brush it off -- to be cool, Zen, removed, relaxed. I told myself there were people out there who never paid their electricity bill on time and still went on to lead happy, fulfilling lives. But the tears still streamed down my face as I sent American Express my last penny and ticked off the days until my next paycheck.

John was sorry and ashamed that we were in this position. He took part-time work and stepped up his job hunt, but nothing stuck. Meanwhile, I was trapped in a vortex of worry, often close to despair. I didn't recognize the pushy, nervous person that I had become. When I watched John as he brushed his teeth or made our bed in the morning, it seemed as if I had allowed a stranger into my life.

There was a time -- I was sure of it -- when I was in touch with what really matters (love, if you're wondering). I could have sworn that I wasn't superficial or materialistic or needy. And John was destined to be my ultimate partner, the one man who could match me in strength and ambition and potential. There was no way that he was lost and insecure and confused. But he was. And so was I.

I missed the bright, charismatic man who had once made me laugh so hard that I almost choked on my iced tea. Where was the guy who could talk to anyone, from lumberjack to astrophysicist, the one who humbled me with his innate understanding of world history and politics? My rudimentary knowledge of psychology (which I gleaned, like most people, from Oprah and some free therapy sessions during college), told me that John's struggle as a child had conditioned him to be comfortable with lacking, that he was OK with not having enough. And I wondered if having a familial safety net was what allowed me to take risks and aim high.

But love wasn't enough. When John pulled me close, I had visions of a future filled with late charges and coupon snipping, and I became distant and cold. I was supposed to marry a man who could easily fill in the financial holes that would inevitably arise as I pursued writing. I pictured myself working at a comfortable pace, taking only the assignments that excited me and outlining the book I'd one day write. And when we had our first baby, of course I would stop working, for at least a good few months. This was how it was supposed to be. This was the plan.

At first I was sad. Then resentful. Then angry. I was angrier than I had ever been in my life. When I saw the defeated look in John's eyes, I would make some clumsy attempts to be understanding and supportive. But I couldn't get past the fact that I had plans, and he was demolishing them. I was furious at myself for marrying this man without seriously considering his current financial status and money-making potential -- furious that I had married for love. I resented my touchy-feely tendency to spend more time in the realm of the emotional than the practical. So I yelled. I threw things. I slammed doors and stomped away.

Five months into marriage, I'd find myself rehearsing the speech I'd eventually give to my parents: I know you spent a significant chunk of your retirement savings on our wedding, and I admit that I used to make fun of celebrities who divorce before a year. But I just can't do it. I'm sorry.

Eight months into marriage, after a particularly awful fight -- the walls of our apartment still vibrating from the screaming -- I curled on our bed after John stormed out and stared through the window, past the New York City skyline to the blue-gray sky above. I saw myself packing a bag and running away. I'd go somewhere exotic, perhaps Vietnam or Malaysia -- somewhere thousands and thousands of miles from my wilting marriage and empty wallet.

My heart began to calm as I mentally planned this trip, making a list of what to pack -- sunscreen, mosquito repellent, jeans for cool evenings. Then I saw myself buying the ticket. I may have been brave enough to walk away from my marriage, to disappoint my family and to shock my friends. But the balance in my checking account left no room for international airfare. I was trapped, and the claustrophobia was paralyzing.

I lay there in the dark room gasping, my breath tight and shallow. And just as I was absolutely sure that I was headed toward a full-blown panic attack, I found a crack in the thick layer of anxiety that had surrounded me. "It's your fault too," said the voice inside my head, sounding not unlike a cranky grandmother. "And don't you forget it."

When it comes to prayer, I'm not the most experienced. But I spent the next 15 minutes actively praying that John would choose to come home that night instead of leaving me forever. (He did. At 2:00 a.m. Tipsy and remorseful.) I needed him to come back because my crotchety fairy godmother was right -- it was my fault, too. What I needed to do was abundantly clear: Stop criticizing John for what he wasn't and focus on what I was -- whiny, critical, demanding -- and able-bodied and capable of contributing to our marriage. It was as easy as it sounds.

A lifelong freelancer, I left my free-agent ways behind and accepted a full-time job as an editor. The security of a steady paycheck and health benefits triggered a spark of love for my new husband that I had been convinced I'd never feel again. Instead of slogging off to work, resentful of my role as primary breadwinner, I wore the title proudly. And looking for even more ways to pad our finances, I suggested that we trade our tiny, expensive Manhattan apartment for a cheaper option in Brooklyn.

Employment must be contagious, because John soon followed my new job with a job of his own, working with kids and schools. Each day, he woke up motivated and inspired. Now fortified with dual incomes, we began to believe that our marriage might stand a chance. I wondered if this surge of optimism was a result of my recent attitude adjustment -- or if it was nothing more than the desire to be different from our parents. His were divorced before he was in the third grade; mine were out of each other's lives before I could speak in full sentences. After more than 25 years apart, his mother and father still refuse to be in the same room; my parents don't have to worry about bumping into each other because my dad hasn't spoken to us in years. In our early days of dating, John and I used to joke that the statistics were stacked firmly against us -- that a child of divorce is destined to be a terrible spouse, and that two children of divorce, well, they shouldn't even bother. Maybe things began to get better simply because we bothered.

If that cranky grandmother who'd caught me planning my escape had chanced to look down upon John and me on the night of our first anniversary, she'd have found a gainfully employed couple squished into the folds of a dingy white love seat in a not-too-small living room in Brooklyn -- cheek smashed against cheek, legs wrapped around legs, happily married for good.

Marisa Belger

Marisa Belger's work has appeared in numerous publications, including Travel + Leisure and Prevention. She collaborated with Josh Dorfman on "The Lazy Environmentalist" and with Ariane de Bonvoisin on "The First 30 Days: Your Guide to Any Change (and Loving Your Life More)." She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and son.

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