When Couples Are Not Financial Equals

References to income and wealth inequality generally focus on how unevenly income and wealth are distributed throughout a population. The greater the gap between those at the top and the bottom, the more problematic it can be to the social health of a country.

In a marriage or committed relationship, income and wealth inequality between partners also present some challenges that don’t exist where the partners are financial equals.

Money is rarely discussed in the early attraction stages of a dating relationship. This dynamic is seen on popular dating shows like Netflix’s “Love Is Blind” and ABC’s “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette.”

However, one reality show, “Marrying Millions” on Hulu, specifically deals with income and wealth inequality. Given my interest in financial planning and financial therapy, I found the show intriguing. First, most couples have been together for six months to eight years, so they are typically beyond the attraction stage of the relationship and starting to deal with the reality of the income and wealth inequality. Second, it often shows the age discrepancy that is common with income and wealth inequality. This makes sense, as typically the older a person is, the more years they’ve had to accumulate wealth.

Not all income and wealth inequalities produce the same outcomes. Here are the dynamics I most often see:

  1. The Funder and Beneficiary. The wealthy partner completely supports the poorer partner, paying for everything. While this tends to be the stereotypical perception of unequal relationships, in my experience, it is the least likely.
  2. The Proportional Spenders. The wealthy partner often pays for the couple’s social life, entertainment, and travel, while basic living expenses like mortgages and utilities are proportionally divided.
  3. The Equal Dividers. The partners agree—sometimes at the insistence of one or the other—that each of them pays an equal share of all joint expenses.

Each of these dynamics comes with its own variations, which I’ll discuss further in next week’s column.

What’s most interesting to me is that the greatest stress and pressure often doesn’t come from the couple’s response to the financial inequality, but from WWPT—”What Will People Think?”. In this case, “people” frequently means friends and family who may not be mute about their concerns or disapproval.

Often, the family and friends of the wealthier partner express concern that the non-wealthy partner is “using” them and is a “gold-digger” only interested in them for their money. That can be true. It can also be false. It can also be true the wealthy partner is aware they are being “used” and is even okay with it.

Conversely, the family and friends of the non-wealthy partner often express their suspicion that they are being “used” by the wealthy person, especially if the non-wealthy partner is younger. Again, this can be totally true, just as it can be false, or true with both partners’ awareness and acceptance.

There are additional issues in socially combining the partners’ family and friends. Money scripts and financial comfort zones around “rich” and “poor” people—on the part of both partners as well as their family and friends—can make for challenging interactions that range from awkward to relationship-ending.

As a result, the pressures exerted by family and friends can actually end up being one of the greatest challenges for financially unequal couples.

Typically, it will take above-average determination, introspection, and transparent communication for a couple to overcome the challenges of financial inequality. The good news is that the inequality often almost forces a couple to have “the money talk” relatively early in the relationship. That in itself can result in a better chance of such a relationship succeeding.

Related: Real Estate Buyers Are Liars ... or Not