When there is income inequality and a woman earns more than her partner, what are the possible problems in a relationship?
Earning more money than her boyfriend proved to be dangerous for Thembisa*, but it didn’t start out that way. Their relationship bloomed from a serendipitous meeting on a bus, but four years later, Bongi* was still taking the bus while Thembisa owned a car and paid for all their household expenses.
Then she bought him a laptop for his birthday. This generosity was the catalyst for all of Bongi’s pent-up frustration and most importantly, his feelings of disempowerment: it boiled into a physical fight so violent she ended up in hospital for a week.
“Often, men can experience feelings of shame and inadequacy at not feeling that they are providing,” explains Clinical Psychologist Richard Middleton. “A central aspect of masculine identity, for many men, is that of being a provider.”
Money has, and always will be, an issue in relationships: because money isn’t about the money – money is about power. Money is about freedom. Money is about choice. And money becomes a symbol of so much more than its Rand value when it’s in a relationship.
As financial advisor Lisa Linfield says: “Money isn’t one dimensional.” This becomes even clearer when there is an income inequality in a relationship, and, as Linfield explains, the money becomes a way to “express the state of the relationship”. Existing issues and dynamics will get played out in the finances. Clinical Psychologist Annette du Toit puts it another way: “The money becomes a metaphor.”
Now, Thembisa’s story may not be the norm, but the relationship wage gap is not a new phenomenon. What’s new about it is in 2017, women are increasingly out-earning their partners and becoming the main breadwinners.
Though this works for many couples, in patriarchal South Africa, both women and men struggle with a power dynamic that is against both their heritage and their expectations. Alison*, a managing director, is now, after a series of unplanned events, out-earning her husband.
She explains: “My husband and I are both Afrikaans – a traditionally patriotic culture, and the cherry on top is that he is a farmer. Although we are both modern, liberal and progressive thinkers, there are certain ingrained cultural quirks which are hard to shake.”
One of these was directly linked to decision-making and the role of head of the household. As she told me, “I wouldn’t say it caused trouble in our relationship – but it blurred the lines of authority. My husband unconsciously started leaving all important financial decisions to me – a burden I felt too heavy to carry along with being the breadwinner. He on the other hand felt that the breadwinner had the ‘luxury’ of making such decisions. So although I am the breadwinner, I wanted all traditional roles to remain… something he felt he could not do as it was ‘my money’.”
Money, in fact, is more often than not a key indicator of a relationship’s success. “One of the best predictors for divorce is financial disagreements,” says Linfield, quoting a university study by Jeffrey Dew that “those who argue about money once a week are over 30% more likely to get divorced than those who disagree only once or twice.”
Annette says, “The dynamic isn’t any different to when women are financially disempowered in a relationship. The difference is that it’s not a social norm for men to be perceived as disempowered.” Though the wage gap is still a very real phenomenon in the South African workplace, more and more women are climbing the career ladder and secretly changing a long-standing dynamic.
Why secretly? I can only guess. What I know for certain is that of the seven sources I interviewed for first person stories, whether in good or bad relationships, cutting across the race, gender and career spectrum nationwide, all except one asked to be anonymous. My best guess is it’s probably because, as one source said, “I don’t want to embarrass my husband.”
Embarrassment is a very real fear. Franco Pellegrini, a Peruvian Italian sound engineer and stay-at-home-dad, has found the social shaming associated with having his wife as the main breadwinner an unfortunate phenomenon in South Africa.
“For men, it’s not really common,” he says, “There’s a lot of judgement, and when I say I look after the kids, a lot of men will say ‘my wife does that’.”
It’s commonplace at social gatherings for men to make snide off-hand comments that imply being the nurturer is an easy role; comments, Pellegrini says, that often infuriate their wives doing the exact same thing. And as a ‘stay-at-home’ dad, Pellegrini finds it frustrating how society and infrastructure are heavily skewed towards women as the nurturers.
Most classes are called something along the lines of ‘Moms and Tots’, few malls have gender-neutral or male baby-changing rooms, and a lot of people assume Pellegrini, as a lone male, has an illicit agenda with their children. One thing that helps with this is his group of like-minded, stay-at-home dads who meet once a week to bond, commiserate, and drink wine. Society aside, Pellegrini’s relationship with his wife works financially. His wife’s income is seen as ‘theirs’ and his contributions are valued as highly as hers – even if they don’t match Rand for Rand.
Another successful relationship is Ayanda* and her husband. Ayanda finds being the main provider extremely rewarding, and loves that her husband encourages her ambition. “Practically, at the end of the day, it’s about the long-term view,” she says, “He is my best friend and we support each other, each doing what we do best for both of us.”
What both relationships are doing right is seeing the money as something practical, not linked to worth, and aligning their long-term goals with what each can contribute to the relationship. As Linfield says: “Secret-keeping, and looking at money as ‘yours, mine and ours’ can cause a lot of trouble in a relationship.”
Managing a relationship wage gap can be challenging, with a wide range of factors affecting the relationship; the main trick though is to respect and value each other.
HOW TO MANAGE YOUR MONEY (IN A RELATIONSHIP WAGE GAP)
(*not their real names)