Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer “radical empathy” and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.
Today the Sugars talk about money — specifically, how money and traditional gender roles affect a relationship. A woman writes that she was initially attracted to her husband’s power and income. But he changed jobs and now she makes the vast majority of their combined income. Now, she says she’s not happy being the main breadwinner and thinks about ending her marriage.
My husband has a life that many people who are “rule-followers,” like me, would envy. When I first met him, it was undeniably a passionate love affair. I’d never dated anyone or known anyone like him before. He took risks, lived all over the world, had many passions and has been a loyal friend. He’s seven years older than I am, and we met at work, where his power and seniority at the office was insanely attractive to me. The year we got married, he wanted to take a risk and go back to graduate school to find his dream job. I trusted his judgment, and between his savings, my new job, and some sacrifices, we comfortably lived while he went through two years of graduate school. My husband now has his dream job. I’m proud of everything he’s accomplished and what we were able to do together to make it happen.
Over the past four years, my career has skyrocketed in ways I never could have dreamed of. I’ve broken through the hypothetical glass ceiling in a male-dominated industry. I am a huge believer in women in the workplace and always will be. If they become the breadwinners in marriage, more power to them.
Now herein lies my problem — I became the breadwinner in an extreme way. I committed to supporting us for two years, but we’re going on four now, and it will likely be five. Our income divide is so extreme that I pay for 90 percent of our living expenses. What I’ve found is I can’t live this girl-power lifestyle that I believe in.
I’m very close to a breaking point, and I never stop thinking about leaving my husband. And no matter what other reasons I come up with, it always leads back to money, power and sexual attraction. I hate myself for it. I hate my sexist, wealthy, materialistic father, who likely instilled these ideals in me. I hate my mother-in-law, who thinks women shouldn’t have to work. I hate that I want a more traditional lifestyle with a husband who can provide for me. I hate that I’m not confident enough in myself to have children because I don’t think I can be the financial provider and a mother. And I hate that I would never look at my husband the same way if he was a stay-at-home dad.
What I hate most of all is that this is not what my husband wants either. He never imagined that he would spend all of his savings to follow his dreams to come out on the other end making a quarter of his prior salary. When I ask myself if I would’ve ever married an older man that I would financially support for the first five years of marriage, and possibly forever, the answer is a hard “no.” And most days I feel like I can’t do this one second longer.
He’s doing everything in his power to make more of a financial contribution, but his fruitless attempts haven’t pulled me out of this rut. It’s embarrassing enough to him that I could never tell my friends or family the extent of our income divide, and I can’t tell him exactly how I feel either. Maybe this was a risk he shouldn’t have taken. I want to be taken care of. I want to pull back at work in order to have a family. And I am so ashamed of my feelings.
Sugars, please help me live what I believe in.
Cheryl Strayed: It’s a fascinating letter because Breadwinner is talking about essentially having a dual reality. She thinks she has these values, and then she actually has these other values. Breadwinner, I think that you either need to end your marriage and go find a powerful, rich guy to be your partner, or you dismantle this value system that’s causing you so much angst and anxiety and sorrow.
Steve Almond: She writes, “Please help me live what I believe in,” and my question is, “What do you believe?” Breadwinner, you’re going to have to come clean with your husband about that internal struggle. What’s so heartbreaking in this letter is that this guy has his dream job. Isn’t that the thing that you’re supposed to want for your partner?
Cheryl: What’s interesting to me is she doesn’t say, “My husband is lazy and refuses to get a job and he sits at home all day playing video games in the basement.” That would be a really legitimate complaint. I think the deeper question is, how is your husband’s wealth connected to your sense of his masculinity and your sexual desire for him?
It’s about you really taking a close look at what’s contributing to your sense of, essentially, falling out of love with your husband. And maybe the reveal is that you never were in love with him; you were in love with the position he occupied — the things he reminded you of and the culture of your own family.
And then what do you do with that? You say you can’t start a family and be a provider. Well that’s not the case. I think it’s really about you taking a close look at how those beliefs about money are influencing your ability to make a decision about whether you want to stay in this marriage or not.
Steve: She’s telling us, “I want to have the experience of being a mother.” I think she also wants to be able to work. Breadwinner, if that’s your ambition, you have to try to make those compatible, and you have to make sure you have the support of your husband. I don’t mean just his financial support, I mean his support emotionally and psychologically as well.
Cheryl: I think that her husband cares an awful lot about money too, and he probably senses her disappointment. Breadwinner, maybe think about approaching this in a way where you both try to speak to each other — without judgment or condemnation — about what your values are about money, about traditional gender roles and how you want to live. You may need to rethink those values in order to meet in the middle on this.
You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the full episode to hear more about how money affects relationships.
Have a question for the Sugars? Email email@example.com and it may be answered on a future episode.
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