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How to Handle a Money Imbalance in Relationships

What happens when one partner earns more than the other?

Money is one of the most common causes of arguments for couples, and one aspect of finances that largely contributes to conflict is a money imbalance in relationships.

One study even found that couples who earn the same salary have a higher chance of lasting, but couples who have an unequal economic standing are more likely to separate.

“Research by Jean Oggins has shown that money matters are the most common cause of disagreement for marital couples, and one topic I see come up time and time again involves differences in salary,” says Dr. Marisa T. Cohen, a relationship scientist, coach, and expert at Paired.

“Couples who have similar income levels have an easier time negotiating how to spend money. Different salaries and budgets, however, can cause a power imbalance and breed insecurity and resentment if not tackled head-on.”

Keep reading to learn how an income gap can affect couples, and how to deal with financial inequality in a relationship. 

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How money imbalance can affect a relationship

Earning disparities can manifest in different ways from couple to couple, but the issue will likely crop up sooner or later.

Whether it’s time to split the rent and bills, or plan a holiday together, earning a drastically different salary than your partner is likely to cause some tension.

Clashing spending habits

“Our salaries can influence our spending habits and daily routines,” explains Dr. Cohen. “A higher wage-earner, for example, can feel frustrated that they have to pay the bulk of the household bills while their partner spends a greater percentage of ‘their money’. The lower wage-earner may feel resentful and think that they shouldn’t be expected to pitch in, since their partner makes so much more.”

Mental health 

Data continues to show that there’s a clear gender pay gap between men and women. “The gap is slowly (very slowly) narrowing,” explains Dr. Cophen, “but it can affect our mental health, and so our relationships.” 

Women who make less money than their male partners are 2.4 times more likely to have depression and four times more likely to have anxiety. Meanwhile, a Paired survey poll of over 12,000 people revealed that mental health is one of the most common challenges couples face in their relationship (85% of respondents). 

Power struggles

Dr. Cohen adds that how much we earn can also influence our sense of worth and self-esteem in a relationship. 

“The person who doesn’t make as much may feel as though they have less influence on big decisions, that they are a burden or that they are holding their partner back,” she explains. 

“The person with the higher salary may at times feel pressure to financially support the couple and manage the household, which can be a big responsibility.”

Household labor

In straight couples, income inequality can also uphold gender roles. In fact, wage gaps affect relationships even when a female partner earns more money. 

A study of more than 6,000 straight married households found that even when women earn more, they’re still likely to do more housework than their male partners — and the more the female partner earns, the wider the gender housework gap. 

How to deal with financial inequality in your relationship

Honest communication is essential if you want to avoid any issues that a money imbalance can create in a relationship. 

Not everyone will earn the same amount of money, but that doesn’t mean that what you do — at work or in the relationship — is less valuable. 

“If you and your partner have different salaries (or even if you have the same salary), be sure to reflect on your own feelings about how your money is affecting you and how you feel about the relationship,” suggests Dr. Cohen, who cautions couples no to try to read your partner’s mind. “Be careful making assumptions about what your partner is thinking.”

Instead, here are some money conversation starters that will help you approach the subject of finances with your partner: ⁠

  1. What are our expectations about spending as a couple?

  2. How should each of us contribute to our shared costs?

  3. How should we handle our financial accounts? Will we be pooling resources or dividing our assets? 

  4. In what way should spending decisions be made?

  5. How can we have more productive discussions about money? ⁠

“Arguments about money are rarely about money itself,” Dr. Cohen adds. “Acknowledging your different incomes and budgets and sharing expectations around each other’s spending when it affects you both can help you come up with an agreement that you’re both happy with.

Is money talk affecting your relationship? Download the Paired app for more relationship advice and couple exercises designed by experts.

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