My husband thinks I should make more money

I’m doing the kind of work I love, but he’s earning so much more!

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, FEB 16, 2006

Dear Cary,

How do I get my husband to stop telling me that I make too little money? I am a full-time copy editor at a magazine, making what copy editors make when they first start out in their careers. I love my job and feel that I am well suited for it; unfortunately, the pay is crap (you’re well aware of this, I believe).

My husband is a first-year attorney at a prestigious firm, earning more than triple my salary. He has worked hard to get where he is, putting himself through law school at night while working a full-time job at a firm during the day for four years. He grew up without much money, and the result is that he’s not only deeply concerned about financial security, he now always wants (I’d even say needs) the best that money can buy.

He associates with a lot of attorneys whose wives are also attorneys or hold high-paying positions, and these people live it up in a way that we can’t. This frustrates my husband and sometimes when we’re confronted with this, he’ll ask me why I can’t get a better-paying job, perhaps go to law school and become an attorney myself. I’ve told him that comments like these are demoralizing, not to mention unfair, since this is the path that I’ve chosen for myself and I’ve worked hard at it — he just works harder. He’ll acknowledge that his comments are not supportive, but add that that’s just the way he feels — that I’m not working as hard as I could while reaping all the benefits of his hard work.

I know it’s true that I benefit from our situation while he puts in long hours at a job that’s not his passion, but it’s not that I’ve ever asked him for any of this. In fact, I’d rather he switch careers and do something that makes him happier, since it’s quite clear that he doesn’t love any aspect of his job except for the salary. But he completely rejects that idea.

Sometimes I wonder if maybe he’s right. He does half the housework and is a caring and loving husband in every other respect. In fact, I’d say that his disapproval of my career choice is out of character for him — he’s really quite easygoing about most other things and I can’t say that we seriously fight over anything else. Do I need to suck it up, start bringing home half the bacon? Am I being a slacker? My heart tells me no, but maybe that’s just because my mind is screaming, “I don’t want to work any harder than I have to!”

A Grim Reaper

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Dear Grim Reaper,

There are three interlocking issues here. The first is political — how two working partners of different sexes apportion the labor fairly. The second is personal — why he at this particular time seems to have a need for you to make more money, and how you personally respond to that. And the third is historical — what family history and long-standing needs are being expressed here.

To answer the first question, what is a fair distribution of labor in a marriage partnership between equals, I think the obvious answer is that it should be 50-50. But of course you have different abilities and different needs, so you make adjustments. And don’t forget, you also have a question about how to share in the rewards. So ask yourselves, What is a fair way for both partners to share in the labor and the proceeds from the labor, if each partner’s labor is disproportionately rewarded?

If you and he can agree in principle, you will have a common goal of fairness that you are both working toward. You probably cannot answer these questions with certainty and exactitude — people have been trying to do so for decades! — but discussing them and struggling to find a balanced answer will reveal much, particularly any previously unexpressed beliefs and expectations that may be influencing you.

The second question involves a bit of a mystery: Why does he at this particular time need for you to make more money? You say this behavior is out of character. That suggests that he has recently encountered some new kind of stress that is too great for him to handle in his accustomed ways. Most likely that new stress comes from his job. Since he is a first-year lawyer, he is working long hours under intense pressure to perform at a high level. That alone can change somebody. But second, he is in a new social realm, and while the work pressure is intense, I am going to guess that it is the social pressure that he is finding most painful.

You say he grew up without much money. Many of the lawyers he now socializes with probably grew up quite comfortably. He may find himself a little intimidated though he might not come right out and say so. Instead, it would express itself as an aspiration: If I only had what they’ve got, I’d be on top of the world (i.e., the unexpressed thought: I would not be as intensely uncomfortable as I am right now).

He has advanced socioeconomically, but that does not mean he automatically belongs to the club; climbing the ladder in America is not a painless experience; it takes guts; it cannot be done without some sacrifice of confidence and dignity and self-worth. He is going to feel small and unentitled at times. He is going to be a small fish. So perhaps in addition to a typically murderous workload for a new associate, he is feeling socially inferior, his manhood and status are being challenged, and he has begun fantasizing how nice it would be to have a high-powered wife, a diplomat or movie star, to bring to the party, to bring to the table, to display to his boss. It would be natural to envy the men who squire rich, beautiful wives to the office functions, to long for the kind of ease and power represented by their addresses and their automobiles.

As to the third issue, it would be a mistake to underestimate the power of family history in shaping our attitudes toward work. Having come from a family with little money, but being quite ambitious by nature, he may have grown impatient with his father and mother, wishing they had made smarter choices and worked harder. It’s possible he’s responding to you with the same impatience with which he responded to his family.

If he thought that once he became a lawyer life would be cleansed of doubt and fear, he may now be dismayed and frustrated at how difficult such transformation is. When we are under stress we sometimes combine several issues in one symbol. So although he knows better, he may see your job as the one thing that now stands between him and the realization of his grand vision. (Perhaps that’s overstating it, but it’s the kind of thought-knot we can get into when frustrated.)

His family history is not the only one that is relevant here. It is likely that you got your values and attitudes about work partly from your family as well.

You have different attitudes toward work. You like work for its intrinsic value, how it opens up and magnifies your abilities and your interests; he sees work as a vehicle to survival, status and acquisition. Neither approach is wrong. Most kinds of work have elements of both. But for him to suggest you take his approach to work instead of your own — I can see why it is demoralizing. You probably feel it as an attack on yourself — because your choice of work is an expression of who you are, not where you are trying to get to.

You need to sort these things out together.

You’ve got a lot to talk about. Good luck!

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