Money matters – financial inequality in straight relationships

Published in Cosmopolitan on June 1, 2022

Jasmine’s sitting across from David* in the pub. It’s their first date and he’s living up to his Tinder profile – charming, good-looking, and seemingly the perfect mix of ambitious and kind. He paid for dinner, and she was keen to continue the evening in the pub.

But when she tries to get a round of drinks, he won’t let her. “You’re a student – I’m paying,” he insists. Jasmine puts her card away, but she can’t put aside the feeling that something isn’t right.

Over their next several dates, David wouldn’t let Jasmine pay for anything. She was training to be a dancer, and he worked as an estate agent. He was only two years older than Jasmine, who was 20 at the time, but David took on the role of provider from that very first encounter.

“It was frustrating,” recalls Jasmine, now 25. “But when I spoke to my friends they said I was overreacting and maybe he was trying to impress me.” But Jasmine says she “knew it was a red flag” – and she was right.

A month in, David started making worrying remarks. “Things like: ‘I don’t know why you’re wasting your time at uni when you’re a woman’,” Jasmine tells me. “He said he thought that ‘a woman’s purpose is to look after her husband, keep the house tidy, cook, have children, while a man’s job is to provide’.”

Unsurprisingly, Jasmine called things off about three months in. “There was no future when our fundamental values were so different.”

This may be an extreme example, but it got me thinking, how many men – and women – still have a very gendered view when it comes to matters of money…

Most women I know expect to be treated as equals – and would recoil from opinions like David’s. But are our attitudes to work and finances really equal in straight relationships? Or are we still haunted by gender roles that, a few decades ago, were default?

I’ve solely dated gentle, feminist men, yet these inherited expectations still bubble up. I’ve out-earned two of my serious partners, and on both occasions – in my early 20s and mid-30s – I’ve noticed reluctance about the fact it’s me often footing the bill. When I took my partner Tommo – an underpaid theatre freelancer – on holiday recently, no one cooed over it. He even joked about being whisked away by me to our friends. He was being cheerful, but I doubt that I would have felt the need to make a joke about a man paying for me, had it been the other way round.

But is that so unexpected? We have a whole language for men buying stuff for women – it’s romantic, it’s treating her, spoiling her. Depressingly, the opposite can still be seen as emasculating. And many of our cultural narratives still prop up those old stereotypes. On programmes, like First Dates, a surprising number of younger women still expect a man to pay for dinner.

And it was topic re-ignited recently in a much-debated TikTok video – Keira Breaugh claims that actually a man should pay, explicitly as an act of redressing wider gender inequality and the pay gap. She said it was “ridiculous” that men expect women to “pay equal amounts even though you don’t have equal rights … Women don’t get 50% of anything. [Not] 50% of the money, 50% of the privilege, 50% of the safety…”

Because depressingly, the gender pay gap is still very much a thing, women are earning 7.9 % less than men in full-time employment. And while a recent YouGov poll found that 26% of women in heterosexual relationships earned more than their partners, 60% of men out-earned their female partners, and four in 10 men still felt a responsibility to be the main breadwinner…

Joanna Syrda, a lecturer in Business Economics at the University of Bath, conducted research into 6,000 heterosexual couples over 15 years, and found that men are happier when both partners contribute financially to the household but only – and this is a huge caveat – if she earns less money than him. Once a partner starts earning as much or more than him, men’s stress levels increase sharply. If we truly believe in equality, this is totally irrational. “It’s interesting that the expectation of the ‘male breadwinner’ is so durable,” says Syrda. Her research found no significant difference between older or younger respondents. So while we like to think things are changing, progress might be slower than we’d hope.

So it’s no wonder that working out what true equality is in a modern relationship is tricky, when we all still carry so much gendered baggage. Is fairness splitting every bill equally – or is it accepting that some people earn more and so should pay more? And do men and women feel equally able to embrace what is most logical – or do old traditions still get in the way?

Nancy, 35, found herself navigating such questions when she was in her late twenties. “When we met, Jamie was out-earning me. We split things, but sometimes he’d pay and bat me away when I wanted to settle up. He definitely ended up paying more,” she recalls, adding that they both felt fine about this because of his higher earnings.

But when the situation was reversed – he lost his job, but she was earning well – it was a different matter. “I was trying to be sensitive to the fact that he didn’t have the money to go to nice restaurants, so I’d offer to pay. But he was so resistant to it. It was a matter of principle to him,” Nancy explains. “It got annoying – I was like, this is dumb, you paid for me in the past, it’s like balancing out.”

“It was such a man thing!” she speculates, with some frustration – because Jamie’s reaction was a surprise, given that he was otherwise a liberal, progressive guy. “There was some weird gender stuff going on.”

This is something Megan, 34, also has experience of. For much of her twenties, she was with a wealthy man called Simon. “I was a student when we met, and he was a multi-millionaire. It was extraordinary navigating that together.” They didn’t live an especially glam lifestyle – “I was still wearing scruffy clothes out of charity shops” – but being with Simon meant she had to reconsider what financial equality in a relationship might look like.

“We went to Mexico on holiday and he just paid for stuff because frankly we couldn’t have done it otherwise. So I had to swallow a lot of my feminist ideals – okay, I’m going out with a rich person who can pay for cool things, I have to accept that otherwise it’s shit for us both.” Simon even bought them a house in Scotland, and put half in Megan’s name. When they broke up, he insisted she take half of its value – which has flipped her life, so that now she’s more likely to be the wealthier one in relationships.

This has already had an impact. She recently started dating Ben, who – alongside the house money – she notably out-earned. “The dynamic was painful,” she says. She felt he judged her for spending money on expensive things, like a fancy organic food shop – even when she was buying stuff for both of them to enjoy. Still, Megan raises the point that this may be less about gender – and more simply about inequality in general giving us the ick. “If that partner had been a woman, would that inequality still be painful? I don’t know.”

It’s something I have been thinking about a lot recently as I have been delving into my own family history. After she died, I started talking about my grandmother with my mum. My grandmother had been expected to give up her job in the post office when she had children. Once her kids were at school, she wanted to go back to work – but my grandfather hated the idea. Heartbreakingly, he saw it only as a sign that he was failing. My grandma’s will won out, and it was that story that first got me thinking about how changing gender roles have affected romantic relationships over the decades. It led me to write a novel, called What Time is Love? which imagines what would happen if the same couple met at three different points in the 20th century, looking at how shifts in gender, class, and opportunity affect their relationship.

Just after I sold this book, rather than using it as a chance to take his foot off the gas, my partner went into overdrive taking on extra freelance work. When I pointed this out, assuming it was unconscious breadwinner-anxiety, he countered that this wasn’t about gender – he grew up with a mum who out-earned his dad – but wanting to contribute. “I don’t want to leech off your success,” he explained. I get it, this urge to be on an even footing and not reliant on a partner. Nonetheless, it’s still men who have an emotional response to being out-earned by a partner – not women.

After so many decades – centuries, even – of prescribed, dominant gender roles, it should perhaps be no surprise that it’s hard to disentangle this stuff: for men to unlearn expectations about masculinity, or for any of us to work out what true equality really looks like.

*Some names have been changed

Holly’s novel ‘What Time is Love?’ is published by Orion

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