Gay Men’s Relationship Issues: When You and Your Partner’s Incomes Differ Greatly

Gay Couple ProblemsIt would be easy if you both earned exactly the same, wouldn’t it? That doesn’t happen in real life, though, and almost every couple deals with an income gap. When the gap is large, you really have to be on your game to keep it from becoming a big and continuing problem. It’s important that you do find a way that works for both of you – money trouble crowds in right behind communication problems as the reason relationships fall apart.It’s easy to understand why – money isn’t just the stuff that gets you a latte when you want one. It’s tied up with such a tangle of emotions. It shows your parents that, yes, you are capable of taking care of yourself. Or not. Money can convince that cutie across the room that maybe you are worth a second glance. Your boss uses money to express an opinion about how well you do your job and you probably use that paycheck to measure your own worth.

In previous blogs, I wrote about 7 Ways to Take Care of Your Financial Self, and How to Manage Money in a Gay Male Relationship, but the emotions relating to money are even more complicated when there is a disparity in how much you and your partner bring home. 

If you’re the lower-earner, you probably feel guilt. You aren’t pulling your weight, you can’t take care of your honey the way you’d like to. You may be working as hard as your partner, even harder, but if you’re bringing home significantly less money, you must be doing something wrong.

If you bring home the big paycheck, you’re primed to resent the imbalance. Why is it all on you? You’re putting a lot more into this relationship; are you being used? How much did your honey’s new shoes cost, anyway? Way more than he could afford without your money, probably.

Perhaps most damaging to a relationship is the power imbalance that can result from an income imbalance. It’s a deep-down belief: money equals power. The partner who brings in the most money is likely to feel his opinions carry more weight (he’s paying, after all). The lower earner is likely to feel powerless, disrespected, and bullied.

There are some sensible things you and your partner can do to smooth the rough places created by your income imbalance:

  • Talk about your money. For the reasons listed above, you may both feel uncomfortable talking about your feelings, but that’s exactly what you must do if you’re to find a way to function financially. If you are concerned the discussion will get more emotional than you can handle, enlist a therapist to help you both work through the issue.
  • Decide how you’re going to manage money and expenses. You may choose to prorate how you cover the bills – if the higher earner brings in 50 percent more money, he pays 50 percent more toward the household bills. You may choose to simply split expenses 50-50; the downside is that the lower earner won’t have discretionary income left. Or, you could combine your incomes in one account and pay expenses out of that.
  • Make a budget together so you both are clear on what’s coming in and going out for the basics. Then you’ll need to negotiate how much “mad money” each of you will have to spend and when and how to make big purchases together.
  • Equalize work hours. If the lower earner works part-time, it makes sense that he will be more responsible for household chores. If you’re both working full-time, housework should be split evenly; if the higher earner feels entitled to do less, the lower earner is bound to feel disrespected.
  • Don’t forget to save. If you’re truly committed, you should begin planning, not just for this summer’s vacation, but for retirement, no matter how far off that is. Until Social Security is fully available to same-sex couples, you’ll have to look out for each other.
  • File jointly. If you’re legally married, you can file a joint federal tax return. Filing jointly will save you money, one of the few federal perks available to you.

The most common solution I have seen gay couples find over the years to this whole money conflict is when they stop thinking of themselves as two individual male egos in competition with each other (just like straight guys competing over something) and start thinking of themselves as a two-person family, a comprehensive unit, that is together in sharing their resources for the long haul (as in potentially many decades to come).  Straight couples, even very young ones, often come to this cohesive conceptualization more easily, because our society has so many validations for heterosexual couples — from marriage rights in all 50 states to depictions of countless relatively happy straight couples on TV, in movies, and in print advertising.  Gay men sometimes have a “lag” in seeing ourselves as a healthily (key word) mutually-dependent domestic unit because we get more messages that we are “not really a couple”, or that our idea of a long-term/committed couple is somehow “less than” a heterosexual couple’s, or we get people referring to our partners or even legal spouses as our “friends” or “roommates”.  We have to fight this pervasive invalidation of gay male couples and assert our right to be a long-term, two-person family every bit as much as a heterosexual couple.  The way that this can start is for each partner to see our households as a blend of two people that form a dyad, a conjoined unit, where everyone makes a contribution regarding time, effort, and money,  and everyone gets his own needs met through those same resources.  It becomes less about “yours and mine” and more about “ours”; collecting from each according to his abilities, and distributing to each according to his needs. 

When I work with gay male couples in therapy (as I have done for over 24 years now), I help them identify the problems but also identify potential solutions, in practical and behavioral terms that are possible to implement and practice at home between sessions.  Usually this means an exchange of favors, behavior-wise.  Each partner agrees to try some new behavior in exchange for his partner also attempting a new behavior — even if that means just communicating in more patient, calm, and empathic ways.  But if the attempts to communicate (about money, communication itself, sex, or other common problems gay male couples report) devolve into frustration or even mutual resentment, then it’s time to get help from a gay men’s specialist therapist who can help you find solutions in a gay men’s developmental, cultural and social context.  For more information about this service, click here, email me at Ken@GayTherapyLA.com, or call or text 310-339-5778.  The investment you make now can pay off in years of a more collaborative and satisfying relationship.

(How have you handled the issue of income difference in YOUR relationship?  Post a comment, below!)

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