When my then-boyfriend ended our relationship, I never expected him to say it was because I was too poor.
There are many reasons he could have given for breaking up: The spark was gone. He was no longer attracted to me. My habit of singing Muppet songs in the shower is indisputably weird. Instead, he said the one thing that managed to tap into all of my long-held insecurities.
“I want someone who can keep up with me,” he said.
We’d spent the entire summer together traveling to various music festivals and had just returned from a two-week whirlwind vacation to Los Angeles and Palm Springs. What more did he want?
Noticing my confusion, he added, “financially. You just don’t make as much money as I do.”
I was in my early 30s at the time, making $35,000 to $40,000 a year as a freelancer; he was in his mid-40s, earning in the low six figures. We were both responsible with our finances; I just made significantly less than he did. This didn’t seem to be an issue, until it was.
We had several discussions about money during our eight months together. While he enjoyed treating me to fancy dinners and concert tickets, we agreed to split everything else 50-50. Our relationship wasn’t perfect, but I thought when it came to our finances, we were okay. In this sense, the breakup blindsided me.
Growing up, my family wasn’t poor, but we were broke. And it showed. While my classmates were dropped off at school in shiny, new minivans, our family car was a 1970s Volkswagen beetle that was so rusted out that you could see the lines on the road when we shifted lanes. Instead of a dinette set, our dining room table was an old door propped up on two sawhorses. From homemade yogurt to the Cabbage Patch Kid imitation doll she fashioned herself, my Mom had the kind of homespun style that any Etsy seller would envy.
We were unconventional by other people’s standards, but my parents always made me feel loved and secure. The only time I ever felt different was when another kid would make fun of our car or ask why our living room was so “weird.” (My mom had reupholstered our aging sofa in a loud print fabric). Despite any embarrassment I felt as a kid, I’m grateful for how I grew up. My mom taught me how to survive and thrive with less.
However, when my then-boyfriend told me that I didn’t make enough money, I felt as if I was 6 years old again, watching ashamed and horrified as my next-door neighbor kicked my DIY-ed Cabbage Patch Kid down the street because, she said, it was “stupid and fake.”
Money is a tender point for many people. “Our income, career, debt and relationship with money all come from an emotional place,” says Alysha Jeney, a therapist in Denver. “For many of us, our sense of identity is wrapped up in our roles and finances.”
As Jeney explains: “If we misunderstand this about our partner, we can easily become fixated on the amount of income that they generate, versus understanding their intention, their values and emotional experience in the context of work and income.”
It’s easy to make these kinds of assumptions because modern relationships have a great deal to do with what economists call “consumption compatibilities,” according to Marina Adshade, author of “The Love Market: What You Need to Know About How We Date, Mate and Marry.” “Whereas in the past, relationships were almost exclusively about building a home and having a family, today they are also about taking trips together, eating in restaurants, etc.,” Adshade says.
In my relationship, my boyfriend and I had completely different lifestyle expectations. He loved any experience that had the letters VIP attached to it, while I’m more of a taco truck kind of person. Because of this, I always felt as if I had to defend my choices to a partner who didn’t necessarily value them.
In reality, we just had different consumption habits. “If you want to go on a holiday and have a five-star experience, and your partner wants to backpack and eat at food trucks, you are not going to be very compatible, or at least not very consumption compatible,” Adshade says.
When it comes to navigating relationships where there’s a clear income discrepancy, Jeney advises couples to “stop focusing on the amount of income one makes, and start focusing on your core values in a relationship. Are those aligned?”
Even if my former partner and I had had identical incomes, I’d have spent mine differently. Instead of purchasing an expensive imported vehicle, I’d rather drive a Smart Car and use the money I save to travel more frequently. While my ex is most comfortable in a luxury hotel, I’m happy to stay somewhere modest if it means I can travel longer and get more of a local experience. Having nice things is great, but unlike my ex, I don’t need them to be happy. Our values never aligned — something we might have noticed if we hadn’t been so focused on the dollars and cents.
“If you make less money, that doesn’t mean you’re less important. If you make more money, that doesn’t mean you do more in the relationship. You both have to establish unique but equitable roles that are specific to your family’s needs and value system,” Jeney says.
Jeney encourages couples to “communicate about these values before you even consider each other’s financial contributions and see them as additional factors instead.” Even if it means having a frank and uncomfortable discussion about how one of you really feels about eating at that new taco truck downtown.
Since my relationship with my VIP-obsessed boyfriend ended, I’ve taken a more value-centric approach to assessing potential new partners. If someone likes to eat out and travel, how do they approach these experiences? What was their upbringing like? Will they wince every time I use a coupon? I’m less interested in their net worth and more curious about their overall relationship to money and whether it’s compatible with mine.