When Your Spouse Makes More Money: How It Feels to Be Financially Dependent

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When my husband and I got married, we both held full-time jobs. And without really thinking about it, we assumed we always would.

How else would it be? You graduate college, then you have a career. It’s just what you do.

But over time, my aspirations evolved, and my new goal — a freelance career — directly conflicted with holding an office job.

But there are dreams, and then there’s real life. I was perfectly happy with my public relations career, and the financial freedom of two salaries gave us some awesome opportunities that were more than worth the tradeoff — especially in a happening city like D.C., where there’s so much to do.

Then, my husband’s work asked him to relocate to Florida for a few years, and suddenly we had some big choices to make.

Quitting My Job to Freelance

I told my husband he should go if he wanted to. He told me I didn’t have to go with him — I’d be leaving a company where I was thriving, just to have to find a job in D.C. again in a few years.

Or, I could come with him, and give full-time freelancing a shot.

The idea alone felt like an incredible gift. I daydreamed about it. I held it in reverence, adoring it from afar. But could I really walk away from a well-paying job and let my spouse bear the financial burden of being the breadwinner?

My gut answer was a whopping no way. It felt irresponsible and entitled. I should be working because … well, I should be working.

Between his advanced science degree and my English degree, there’d always been some income inequality … but at least I was pulling my weight.

But in reality, my husband’s suggestion was by no means insane. It was well within our means to live on one salary Florida, where the cost of living is significantly lower.

It wouldn’t even be the first time one of us left a career to chase an aspiration. A few years after we got married, my husband wanted to get his doctorate, so we picked up and moved to Omaha.

And we loved it. In fact, we’ve talked up Omaha to friends on a level that can only be described as evangelism.

During that time, I was the primary breadwinner. And it wasn’t something I thought about. We were just living a fantastic life together.

Taking My “Turn”

But it was still incredibly hard for me to accept a reversal of those roles. Hard enough to make me say no to a dream opportunity for months, based only on vague feelings about what was “adult” and “responsible.” Who was I to take a chance on freelancing when my husband still had to work?

My husband kept pressing, the decision deadline crept up, and finally I had to make a decision. Deep down, I knew that if I turned this down out of self-induced guilt, I’d deeply regret it.

When You’re Not the Breadwinner

So here I am, a few months into freelancing, earning next to nothing while my husband supports us both. The little I earn goes straight into a separate business account for business expenses and taxes. For our day-to-day lives, I contribute zilch.

We get groceries on my husband’s salary. We eat out on my husband’s salary. I want to crank up the AC? Just add it to my husband’s tab. Haircut? Sweetheart, you got another $40?

Being on the receiving end of this arrangement has been even more uncomfortable than I expected. I compulsively take on extra chores, as if to earn my keep. I keep my expenses to a bare minimum, as if I could shrink away my needs and become financially invisible.

A recurring question that’s haunted me since we made the move is whether I have a right to replace my pricy Clinique face care products — the only thing that keeps my acne away — when they eventually run out. Or should I find something cheap at the grocery store instead?

The craziest part is that, even as I do this to myself, I know it’s all in my head. If I venture to talk to my husband and mention my haunting Clinique question, he stares blankly and asks, “Why would you need to do that?”

I don’t know why. I just feel as if I should.

My self-awareness about how ridiculous these feelings are has been my saving grace. If this kind of guilt was floating just below the surface, it could easily turn into an ugly and painful series of fights about nothing. As it is, I see it in myself and I know it to be unreasonable.

Because my marriage isn’t about keeping score or tracking every penny — no marriage is. And my husband has never acted as if it was.

Marriage is about working together as a team, financially and in every aspect of life. We help each other be our best possible selves, reach our dreams and experience our adventures together. Money is just a tool to help us do those things.

Putting Financial Guilt in its Place

I know I’ll continue to struggle to keep the freeloader guilt in check. But for now, I’m learning to channel it into more productive actions, such as going after better-paying freelance opportunities, rather than letting it wear me down.

Because if I let the guilt rule me, then I’m doing myself a major disservice by not taking full advantage of the opportunity my husband is giving me — and that’s not fair to either one of us.

Your Turn: Have you faced income inequality in your relationship? Share your experience in the comments!

Emily Wenstrom writes about pop culture, creative writing and lifestyle topics; she also advises clients in content strategy. Learn more at www.EmilyWenstrom.com.