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Navigating Fiscally Unequal Relationships

February 14, 2017 |

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Navigating Fiscally Unequal Relationships

When You Have More Money Than He Has 

Senior couple with head to head standing in yard

As we approach Valentine’s Day, my thoughts naturally turn to love and money. Previously I blogged about starting to date again and determining who should pay.  As I observe many of my “wisters” (widowed sisters) starting to date again, I find that I am often part of conversations about being in relationships with partners who have less money than the widow.

The idea of the fiscally unequal relationship is hardly new. Relationships between men and women have historically been fiscally unequal, but typically men were bringing more money to the relationship, as well as earning more during the relationship.  Those dynamics are certainly changing in today’s world, but not without the disruption that comes with any transition.

At the Financial Transitionist ® Institute (FTI), we have been studying this topic over the past decade and have found that when partners are fiscally unequal, it’s challenging no matter who has more. But when the woman has more, a subtle imbalance is created in the relationship that is often difficult to talk about.

I would like to think that over the lifetime of my nieces and nephews, as women continue to enter the workforce and close the gap in earnings, this topic won’t be as socially awkward as it is today. But based on discussions with my colleagues at FTI, as well as the wisters in the Dallas Chapter of Modern Widows Club, it is definitely still a sticking topic in relationship conversations today. I’m encouraged however, that as many wisters are not just earning more in their careers, but often also having more assets due to the inheritances that resulted after the loss of their husbands, the conversation is changing.

Money has been a powerful measuring stick by which we judge ourselves and each other.  Having money in the relationship meant having power in the relationship.  Men have traditionally held that power and sometimes used that to be the caretaker of their families and other times used it to make unilateral decisions and lord power over their families. Feminine power, on the other hand, has often been more about empowerment of all parties, rather than having power “over” someone else.  At FTI, we like to say that when money changes life changes, and when life changes, money changes.  So it is with the shifting of power as women earn more money and manage more wealth.  However, because women believe more in empowerment than “power over”, we often see widows trying to equalize the relationship financially. If the man has fewer assets, she increases his wealth in an attempt to balance things out.  The wister may give her partner a lump sum to invest as he chooses, provide the start-up funds for his new business, or even give him an allowance of sorts.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these decisions in and of themselves.  But it doesn’t address the underlying issue, which is more to do with the personal or emotional side of the equation than the finances themselves.  For example, how does your partner feel about having less than you?  Will your gifts only make him feel more inferior or emasculated?  Does he fear that if you provide financial support, your community will assume that he’s an opportunist or only in the relationship for the money?

Giving away money as an emotional reaction, rather than as part of an overall transition financial plan often leads to disappointing results.  Financial planning with a financial professional trained in the art and science of transitions, will include looking at different scenarios and outcomes with thoughtful discussion that considers the intentions and expectations of your new partner.  This type of planning can create the opportunity to make more rational decisions that increase your chance of success.

couple discuss billsSuccess in your new relationship can only happen with thoughtful discussion.  This can be difficult because in relationships of all kinds, money is often the proverbial elephant in the room that we don’t want to discuss.  In romantic relationships, it’s as if everyone is trying to prove that their relationship is “real,” and at some point “real” is defined only in terms of love and romance rather than in terms of money.  Yet based on the statistics that say money is one of the leading causes of break-ups, talk of money is definitely needed in “real” relationships.

What’s needed is discussion that acknowledges the difference in finances and the emotions around that, normalization of these feelings, and then a structure to work through the discomfort. As important as these conversations are, they can reveal the flaws and cracks in our relationships. What each partner does with the financial discussion —how each shows up, communicates, and takes action based on the information—is what determines the direction of the relationship.

Because women think of power differently, I believe that as the balance of power shifts, this discussion only gets richer.  As we focus more on empowerment, we can reframe the discussion to be less about the money, and more about the opportunities that the money provides.  Having money allows you choices.  It can be used to create possibilities with your partner. As you recognize the gift of financial resources is the ability to make choices, you will want to make sure that you’re making wise ones that reflect the values that are important to you today; this new you that is part of this new relationship with shared values and new goals.  The goal is for money to be a peaceful topic that can be addressed when it needs to be, without discomfort or drama. Just like relationships, money is dynamic and it needs to be honored and discussed as it shifts and changes. Having more than your partner shouldn’t be a relationship deal-breaker, but it should definitely be openly, honestly, and constructively discussed.

I welcome your thoughts on this topic.

In her day job, Joy D. Kirsch is a Certified Financial Planner™ practitioner specializing in financial transitions.  Widowed at age 30, advocating for widows has become her passion as well as her vocation. She can be reached at joy@modernwidowsclub.com

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If you have any questions or concerns, please email info@modernwidowsclub.com