As a therapist in private practice who has specialized in working almost exclusively with gay men for over 20 years, I have seen many individuals and couples who come in for help with issues related to managing money.
There are few issues for either individuals or couples that provoke more anxiety than money, especially if we consider these recent Recession years, which many of my clients would say we are still not completely out of yet. Money seems to be tight for most people, regardless of their profession or background. So when we meet someone for serious dating or form a new relationship living with someone (or getting married, where possible), it’s very easy for your differences in income or overall “money status” to spark conflict.
Many gay male couples have great differences between the partners in terms of overall assets. This is because gay male couples often vary in their demographics. You see older, wealthier men with younger men, or couples of mixed race or nationality. Gay men come in all different sizes and shapes, and a local gay community represents men of all different ages, professions, and cultures.
Gay men who form relationships with one another can see these cultural differences emerge when it comes to money, either from how their culture views money, or values the man was raised with, differences in individual family cultures, and what meaning money (the presence or lack of it) held in his family of origin.
What makes money issues sometimes so intense with conflict is that it’s a two-pronged problem to solve: there is an emotional component, and there is a practical component. Both components need to be addressed to be successful in preventing or resolving conflicts.
Emotional dynamics can range from feelings about being “deserving” or not, tying income to a personal sense of self-worth, and tying feelings of internal self-worth to material things such as clothes worn, car driven, where you live, where you go on vacation, where you go out to eat, and the status of the people you socialize with. Money issues can also be tied to impulse control, self-discipline, seeing the world as abundance (versus scarcity), and short-term versus long-term reward. Some gay men see money as a way to regain social status that has been “lost” by exposure to antigay forces, prejudices, and bigotry in society. Money issues are an emotional trap that’s a mile wide for everyone, but they intensify for gay men and couples.
Practical issues include how much money you (and/or your partner/spouse) earn, how much you would like to earn, how much you have the potential to earn, and what to do with the earnings that you already have (everyday expenses, discretionary expenses (the fun stuff), saving, and investing).
In couples counseling, I’ve helped many couples resolve the challenges that are both emotional and practical. If you came from a family or circumstances where there was a lot of lack, this must be addressed in the relationship. If you had a former partner who somehow took advantage of you, or was even dishonest with you about money, even stealing from you, that must also be addressed so that old feelings of resentment against a previous partner do not spill over onto your current partner. If there are resentments between the partners because one partner earns more salary (sometimes to an extreme degree) than the other, these must be discussed and “worked through”. If not, these resentments can easily ruin your sex life because we cannot be attracted to a partner we are angry at, or resentful of. (Many sexual problems in relationships can actually be traced back to money conflicts, or sometimes conflicts about sharing household chores).
There are many solutions that can be discovered in the process of couples therapy. One is that that partners agree to hold their own checking (and possibly savings) accounts, but they also open a joint account together at a bank, and then each partner contributes equally to that joint account, from which all household expenses (rent/mortgage, utilities, groceries, medical bills, entertainment, insurances, etc.) are taken. If they can’t put in equal amounts, they decide to put in proportion to their incomes. For example, if John makes $100,000 per year and Anthony makes $50,000, then John would deposit two dollars for every one dollar Anthony contributes – you have to do some math in these discussions to make it work equally, consistently, and fairly.
If you make less than your partner, either because of the field you’re in, or perhaps because you are just younger or less experienced professionally, there must also be a discussion about how much you want your partner to serve as a career mentor to you. In some couples I’ve seen, the older or more-experienced partner can offer quite a bit of coaching, mentoring, and education to a younger partner to help the younger partner develop professionally – but this can easily lead to resentment if the younger partner wants to be “left alone” to find his own way, as the older partner often was at the same age. There are times when “mentoring” a partner can seem like a nice thing, but it’s actually paternalizing and emasculating – things you really want to avoid in a relationship. There should be a discussion of how much help, to whom, how, and how often one partner “helps” the other develop his career (and income).
Both partners in the relationship should work to increase their education on money management skills. Sometimes in money management, you can come out ahead in the long term, even if you make less money, than someone else, if you have more education about financial management skills. For example, taking it upon yourself to learn about your 401-k options at work, or how to invest in a SEP-IRA or Roth IRA, and how to understand investing in stocks, bonds, and other items (like real estate) is always a good idea. If one partner knows more about these things than the other, perhaps you have discussions to get both of you on the same page.
Books that educate you on basic financial skills can be helpful, such as those by Chellie Campbell (The Wealthy Spirit, or From Zero to Zillionaire), Suze Orman, the famous (lesbian) financial planner, author of The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous, and Broke, or those by Jane Bryant Quinn. (Beware, however, of books by Dave Ramsey, such as the Total Money Makeover, for while this is a decent book, he is a Fundamentalist Christian who is a Chick-Fil-A supporter and antigay – http://blogs.ajc.com/the-buzz/2012/07/26/celebs-weigh-in-on-chick-fil-a-flap/?cp=10 ). Education is your best friend in financial management, so you can learn the relative risks and benefits over the long term, especially when you and your partner are planning and saving for retirement (which you should be considering no matter how young you still are).
Perhaps the most important thing to consider is keeping the lines of communication open about money matters with your partner. Consider having a monthly “Couples Conference” at home together to sit down and discuss your monthly saving, spending, budgeting, and planning of expected costs and expenditures for the “fun stuff”. This will help you to enjoy your expenditures without worrying if you’re spending too much, and it will help reduce any resentments in this area of your relationship.
And when you need support, such as airing the conflicts and getting support for resolving them, that’s where I come in as your couples counselor. If your relationship might benefit from this kind of support, email me at Ken@GayTherapyLA.com, or call me at 310-726-4357. If you can’t attend during the week (Monday through Friday), I have associates at GayTherapyLA on the weekend who can help as well.