I recently received an email from a reader asking how Seth and I negotiate finances in our marriage. Conflict over finances and division of labor is rampant in marriages and partnerships, whether traditional or egalitarian. In traditional marriages where roles may be clearer, with men laboring outside the home, and women inside, conflicts may still arise about how to spend money and who controls it. If roles are reversed, the same dynamics can still appear. For example, a stay-at-home dad talks about how he found himself going out of his way to sexually please his high-earning wife to gain power over financial decisions in this post on Role Reboot. Conflict can also arise when partners disagree about how traditional or egalitarian their marriage should be, essentially a question of how power will be negotiated.
In egalitarian marriage, there is a commitment to equalizing power. This inherently asks more of partners in the way of negotiation. If power imbalances exist, we are called on the rectify them, rather than accept that as “just the way it is.” The main power dynamics in traditional, heterosexual marriages relate to gender. Thus, in egalitarian marriage, we equalize power by giving gender less weight. Firstly, this means power is not given out or assumed based on gender (traditionally on being male). Further, the value of labor is also not dictated by gender. Traditional “women’s work” has historically been devalued. Additionally, women do not earn the same pay as men for the same labor outside the home. As a result of these societal realities, to be truly egalitarian, the value of labor must be separated from its monetary value. Thus, our value in the relationship is not earned, it is inherent in us as people and independent of our earning potential.
Egalitarian father Seth, holding O's hand
Secondly, in egalitarian marriages, decisions about how to structure division of labor in families are made based on criteria other than gender. For example, a question may arise about who will do the dishes after dinner. A traditional way to solve this problem would be concluding doing dishes is woman’s work. An egalitarian way to solve it could be to base it on who cooked dinner, who washes dishes more efficiently, who has time on a given night, or deciding to take turns no matter what else is going on. You can see where the answer might be clearer when based on gender. Gay couples do not have the option of dividing labor based on gender and thus are sometimes more well versed in division of labor negotiations.
Often it is tempting to assume in egalitarian marriages “everything is equal” so there are no power dynamics. But, power imbalances and negotiations occur in all human relationships. Egalitarianism requires constant negotiation. It is not a pronouncement made at the beginning of a relationship that holds true for all time, it is a guiding principal that informs our continual interplay with our partners. I frequently see couples attempting to “balance” power in marriages and relationships with math. For example, couples will calculate who spends more hours working, who does a greater number of household tasks, who spends more time at childcare, who brings in or spends more money, or who feels like the most shit at the end of day (okay, that one is less mathematical).
These mathematical negotiations can sometimes give us a global idea of how equal things are. For example, Seth works full-time and I work part-time and am home with children part-time. When counting childcare as work (as any sane person should), Seth and I both work approximately 12 hour days five days a week. We split childcare on weekends (not with any kind of mathematical formula, it just works out that way). Obviously, working full-time, he makes more money than I do, but I provide childcare which enables him to leave the home and work. Seth and I don’t plan out our schedule so that we both work the exact same number of hours, but doing this math gives a rough estimate of basic equality of workload. However, there is way more to equality than this kind of math can quantify.
Seth's creations for a dinner party
Our finances are completely combined, which is ironic, and a little frightening, as I swore for years to never mix my money together with a man’s. Before marrying, Seth and I had a plan to pool our earnings together, no matter how different, make all necessary monthly payments, and then split the remainder into two separate accounts. This would be “our own money” with which we could do what we pleased. This plan was egalitarian in that the power to make financial decisions was not based on level of earnings or the type of labor each partner would be doing. When this plan was made, however, Seth and I were living in a magical fantasyland where people have extra money at the end of the month. One major thing we didn’t anticipate was that shortly after having children, Seth would leave a job at which he was miserable, for one that paid almost half as much, but affords him greater happiness and more time with our precious babies.
This experience is a great example of continued negotiation. We make a plan for division of labor and finances, than we tweak it and tweak it, and sometimes throw it out and start all over. From what I’ve seen, in most marriages, one or often both partners feel they are doing more than their share. Math calculations meant to “prove” who is doing more often fail to take into account critical aspects of true equality.
Aspects of equality that can’t be measured by math and should be part of division of labor negotiations:
1) Strengths, Weaknesses, and Limitations – People are wired differently. My husband simply has more energy than I do (or than most anyone does). He keeps going and going, like the energizer bunny. Asking him to do less tasks just to make things exactly even is a waste of family resources, and expecting me to become more like him is unrealistic and unfair. There are also times in our lives when for whatever reason, we are capable of more or less. Emotional and medical crises or ongoing conditions may require us to take on significantly more than a partner. Unless these situations are deal-breakers for our relationship, they need to be taken into account when dividing labor. Equality does not mean equally capable at all times, it means equally contributing to the extent one is able. Yes, egalitarian marriage is a little like socialism.
2) Happiness – A related concept. If everything seems “equal” according to math, but one partner is horribly miserable, things may need to shift. Equality must take into account a balance in overall happiness, including ability to pursue life passions, career satisfaction, personal and spiritual fulfillment, etc. For example, one partner may take a less appealing job that pays more so the other who has been miserable in his job for years can go back to school. Supposed “equality” can really suck if one’s partner is miserable!
3) Emotional Toll – Some labor is more emotionally gruelling , and thus takes a toll on the body, mind, and heart in ways that cannot be quantified by time. An hour spent consoling a screaming child, talking a suicidal patient into voluntary commitment, sitting by the bedside of a dying parent, or taking a critical deposition of a hostile witness really can’t be mathematically compared to an hour spent entering benign data into a database, writing a brief, monitoring children playing harmlessly, or creating an architectural design.
In general, childcare is extremely emotionally taxing, and care of one’s own children is emotionally taxing in ways our culture fails to grasp even at a basic level. Inner turmoil and guilt surrounding natural ambivalent feelings about our children can tax us to the extreme. These feelings are particularly culturally forbidden for mothers, and may be worsened for mothers who make the choice to practice equal parenting. Additionally, mothers do not receive the positive validation men do for childcare. On the other hand, men who engage in frequent childcare must face the emotional toll of being perceived as gender variant, as well as not performing their culturally sanctioned roll as “provider.” Many of us experience the effects of these feelings but are unable to articulate them to ourselves or our partners. Emotional work, whether in or outside the home, requires extra time off to process, decompress, unwind, and care for ourselves.
4) Physical Toll – Some work is also more physically grueling than others. Again, garbage collecting, landscaping, and repeatedly carrying 20 pound twins cannot really be compared to sitting at a desk or in meetings most of the day. An hour at a physically grueling job may take a greater toll and require more time to recover physically.
5) Personal Preferences and Quirks – Ahhhh… the downfall of many a well-meaning egalitarian couple! There are levels of necessity for both household labor (including childcare) and work outside the home. For example, feeding children is a life-or-death task. Sweeping the floor can be put off for a time, but eventually has to be done. You could probably get away with never folding sheets, although most people would typically want this to be done. Waxing furniture is a task that could be seen as totally unnecessary. Partners will have different opinions about which tasks should be prioritized and how much. For example, if one partner cannot leave the house unless the sink is empty of dishes, that person may end up doing more than “his share” because he has this requirement. The less necessary the task, the less weight it should be given in the division of labor.
Many people require their homes to be neat and clean in a way that goes well beyond safety, cleanliness and even basic aesthetic desirability. These people cannot really expect their partners to do half of that work if they don’t see it as necessary. Further, some people are workaholics and do way more work at their jobs than is necessary. If this fills some need for them or is just part of their personality, they can’t really expect their spouse to rise to the same level of workload when it isn’t necessary. Some people view cooking as a hobby, or find cleaning soothing and relaxing. These tasks should be given less weight when compared to onerous chores. In general, if a partner has preferences or quirks that require unnecessary work to be done, the other partner cannot be expected to fully reciprocate that.
6) Division of Labor Equalizes Over Time, Not at a Given Time – Calculations meant to assess division of labor at a given point in time in the life of a relationship cannot possibly take into account inevitable ebbs and flows. While one partner is engaged in an artistic, educational, or vocational pursuit that is all-consuming, the other may take on a greater share of household and childcare labor or financial burden. Several years later, the other partner’s goals may be prioritized.
7) Career and Earning Potential Losses – Partners who spend time at household labor and childcare inevitably make career sacrifices. For example, I am progressing in my career slowly right now because I am doing more childcare and working part-time. To look at it pragmatically, if Seth and I were to break up, I would have incurred vulnerability in terms of my earning potential and be less advanced in my career. Things like missed promotions, earnings one could have made, research that could have been published, and books unwritten are impossible to mathematically quantify. I often hear partners complaining that their partner is not contributing financially, but I rarely hear those partners recognizing the sacrifices their partner is making by “not contributing financially.”
8) Normalizing Overload – This is a big one! Many people assume that is they are completely overtaxed, their partner must not be doing his/her share. The fact that one or more partners feel completely maxed out and almost at the brink of collapse does not necessarily imply inequality, at least not within the couple! This is especially true if a couple has young children, needy aging parents or other crises going on in their lives. The truth is two people can feel taken advantage of and miserable and the reality can just be their lives are equally sucky at that time. Taking feeling overwhelmed as a sign your relationship is inequitable can unnecessarily add marital problems to your long list of stresses. I personally believe family life structured around one isolated couple and their children is quite unrealistic and leaves us all overburdened, especially when combined with economic inequalities and lack of social supports for families, but that is another post or twelve.
9) Sometimes Equality Requires Outside Help – There are times when in order to reach equality, not just based on math, but based on the criteria above, outside help is needed. For example, let’s say Amy and Sue are a lesbian couple. Amy is extremely high energy and ambitious. She works 80 hours a week at a hedge fund. Sue stays at home with their toddler, and is pregnant with their second child. If Sue has a typical energy level, it may not be realistic for her to do childcare almost all the children’s waking hours while Amy works. Even though Amy is the one contributing financially, Sue may need at least part-time help to stay sane and remain the person Amy married. In my opinion, getting a bi-monthly house-cleaning service is the single most cost-effective way to lessen the labor load in a household.
10) Respect and Basic Fairness versus Mathematical Debate – If discussions and negotiations of division of labor respect both partners, allow both to be heard, and focus on compromise they are likely to be more successful. Negotiations based on proving one has been wronged or putting down the other partner’s contributions are doomed to fail. Partners who feel criticized, blamed, and underappreciated are unlikely to agree to compromises that make the other partner feel things are more equitable. We need to be able to put ourselves in our partner’s shoes and truly empathize with what their labor is like in order to respectfully negotiate.
So how do you know if things are “equal” then? There is no mathematical equation that will spit out what each partner is “worth” in terms of productivity level in a family’s division of labor. The most important thing is to remember how much your partner is worth to you. If you are with the right person, your partner is priceless, so his or her happiness is of the highest value. Maintaining an egalitarian marriage in an emotional, not a mathematical calculation. Ultimately we must ask ourselves if there is basic fairness in our relationship, and if there is, avoid making our partner the enemy. Focus negotiations on solutions rather than blame and accusations. If basic fairness is lacking, that may signal that partners don’t agree on a foundation of egalitarianism.
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