When one partner earns more than the other, it can create challenges. Despite income differences, it’s possible for couples to develop a balanced, healthy relationship.
It’s not uncommon for one partner in a relationship to earn significantly more than the other. And if it bothers you, you’re not alone.
In any relationship, when there’s a significant income difference, it can cause a perceived power imbalance, creating potential conflict, resentment, or frustration in one or both partners.
But with open and honest communication, and a willingness to work together, you can find a balance that works for both of you.
Sex and gender exist on a spectrum. We use “women” and “men” in this article to reflect the terms assigned at birth. But gender is solely about how you identify yourself, independent of your physical body.
According to Duewa “Kaya” Spicer, LCSW and certified sex therapist from Katy, Texas, a perceived power imbalance around money can manifest in a number of ways.
Challenging traditional gender roles
When couples assume the societal norm of the man being the primary breadwinner, it can lead to feelings of insecurity or emasculation in the male partner, explains Spicer.
But Spicer points out that not all men feel this way. “This may not be the case if both parties are secure in their earning and their role in the relationship,” she notes.
In non-heteronormative relationships, power dynamics can still play a role, but gender expectations may have less influence or impact on financial differences, says Ariel Landrum, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Reseda, California.
“Still, non-hetero couples need to acknowledge and address other power imbalances that may arise, such as hierarchical status within the culture,” she notes.
Example of traditional gender roles
John, a college professor from Austin, Texas, has been married to Sarah, a successful lawyer, for 5 years. While John loves his job and finds it fulfilling, he often feels insecure about his salary, which is significantly lower than Sarah’s.
John says he loves teaching and how fulfilling it is for him to make a positive impact on his students’ lives. But he also admits that he sometimes feels like he’s not living up to his potential, and he’s not contributing as much to the household as Sarah is.
John states, ” It’s my duty as a man to provide for and protect my family. At least that is how I was raised. She is able to go on fancy trips and eat at fancy restaurants. She always insists on paying. It’s emasculating!”
Conflict around decision-making
The partner who earns more may feel they have more say in decision-making related to finances, leading to conflict or resentment.
Pressure to support the family financially
The partner who earns less may feel pressure to contribute more to the family financially, which can cause stress and strain in the relationship. They may also feel pressure to match or exceed the other’s earning to feel like an equal in the partnership.
Disparities in work and leisure time
The partner who earns less may have to work longer hours or take on additional jobs to make ends meet, which can lead to disparities in leisure time and cause feelings of resentment.
Resentment can also surface around the division of household responsibilities.
For example, even though more women are earning as much or significantly more than their husbands, they still take on the bulk of the work at home.
This 2023 study of U.S. marriages found that wives spend more time on housework and childcare, while their husbands spend more time on paid work and leisure. But over the past 50 years, the number of women who earn as much as, or significantly more than, their husbands has nearly tripled.
So when income differences come between couples, how can they create a healthy balance? Our relationship experts weigh in:
1. Maintain open communication
Open and honest communication is key when it comes to discussing finances, says Spicer.
“I cannot stress enough how important it is to discuss financial expectations early in the relationship,” she says. “Ask your partner about how they engage with their finances. Just because one partner is a higher earner doesn’t automatically mean they are financially more responsible.”
Try to ask open-ended questions that allow your partner to share their thoughts and feelings about their financial practices, rather than assuming you already know what they think or feel.
This can help build trust and mutual understanding and create a safe and non-judgmental space for honest communication.
Landrum adds that couples who share their family history with money can help partners understand any fears associated with debt, financial loss, or financial gain.
2. Practice non-judgment
Approach financial conversations with empathy, curiosity, and an open mind, without imposing your own values or assumptions on the other person, Spicer advises.
Acknowledge and accept that each person has their own unique financial circumstances, goals, and values, and there is no one “right” way to manage money.
3. Be open to compromise
Candace Kotkin-De Carvalho, LCADC, LSW from Morris Plains, New Jersey, recommends setting up a budget that works for both of you. This can include money for fun activities, such as date nights, vacations, or anything else that brings joy into your lives.
Also, create an agreement that outlines your financial goals and expectations. This will add clarity and help minimize potential conflicts in the future.
“Focus on celebrating each other’s successes and supporting one another through difficult times,” Kotkin-De Carvalho says. “Acknowledge your partner’s hard work, efforts, and dedication to their career and express gratitude for their contributions to your lives. This will help them feel valued and respected regardless of their financial status.”
4. Avoid blame
It’s also important to set a positive and respectful tone for the conversation. Spicer recommends using neutral language and avoiding blame or criticism. Try to actively listen to your partner’s perspective without interrupting or dismissing their concerns.
Should I marry someone who makes less money than me?
When considering a partner who makes less money, Landrum says it’s important to focus on the overall compatibility of the relationship rather than just the financial aspect.
“While financial stability is essential, other factors contribute to a successful relationship,” she explains. “Consider other important qualities, such as shared values, interests, goals, religious affiliation, and parenting styles. Evaluate the relationship based on these factors, not just on financial ones.”
When one partner earns more money than the other, it can cause a power imbalance in the relationship. This can lead to potential conflict, frustration, and resentment.
It’s important for couples to openly communicate their expectations and concerns when it comes to finances and work, and to partner in finding a balance that works for both.
Additionally, it can help to challenge traditional gender roles and understand that both partners can contribute to the relationship and the family, regardless of gender or income level.
The example of people, places, and events depicted herein are fictitious. Any association or resemblance with any real company, organization, person, places, or events is not intended or should not be inferred.