This April marks the 30th anniversary of my marriage—and one year since my husband and I started sharing a bank account. “I think all couples should keep their money separate,” I used to tell anyone who asked. And it’s true that Doug and I almost never argued about money. He had his and I had mine; each month he’d pay what bills he felt he could, then hand the rest over to me. It wasn’t anything we talked about. It’s just the system we adopted.
But it was also true that for almost all of our three decades together—we both just turned 56—I made more money than Doug did. In the beginning, it was only a couple of thousand more each year. As time went by, though, the gap grew. He was a musician and, for the school years, the stay-at-home parent for our two kids. I made the long commute from the distant suburbs to my job at a magazine in Philadelphia, and the bigger bucks.
That meant I paid the lion’s share of bills. And while on paper the situation looked fair, it never felt fair to me. I couldn’t shake the sensation that Doug wasn’t doing his part—that he was holding back. Oh, I don’t mean in big ways. It was the little stuff that rankled. Why was he buying coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts instead of making it at home? Why had he bought $80 sneakers instead of putting that money toward bills?
I was so uncomfortable talking about money with him, though, that I never asked these questions out loud. It was awkward to earn more than he did. And though we’d both agreed that I would work and he would (mostly) stay home, I couldn’t rid myself of the belief that he should do a better job of supporting our family financially.
I found myself obsessively tallying which of us paid for what each month. Why, if I bought the groceries, did he put such pricey items on the shopping list? How come I always ponied up for the Christmas presents—for his family and mine? I became a quid pro quo ho, right down to the level of “Why is he drinking the wine I bought instead of the beer he did?” When we were relatively flush, things were easy between us. But when times turned tight, my resentment would flare: How come I couldn’t afford a haircut at a decent salon? Why was I still wearing dresses from 10 years ago? It just wasn’t fair.
My focus on fairness is likely the product of growing up the middle of three sisters. Nan was the oldest one, smart and beautiful; she was voted prom princess in high school. Jan was the baby of the family, coddled and unbearably cute. I was stuck between them, a stolid, solid introvert who was invariably racked with jealousy, inwardly seething: Why her and not me?
But the marital ledger-keeping was also about control. I don’t like to fly. I don’t even like to ride in cars while other people drive; I want to be behind the wheel. Somewhere in my psyche is a real fear of being blindsided, by a tractor-trailer or by fate—like getting socked with a bill I can’t pay.
While our separate-bank-accounts system seemed convenient at first, over time it made me small-minded and mean. Doug, the kids, even the dog all learned that bill time was the really bad time of the month for me. I got downright bitchy as I wrote checks, sealed envelopes and stamped them. I felt no joy in providing for my family, only a constant sense that I was giving more than I was getting.
Some experts say one clue to long-lasting happiness is to feel you’re putting more than your spouse does into the relationship. Those experts never asked me. I was after some elusive, all-encompassing tote board on which everything each of us did would have an actuarial value assigned—three loads of laundry, 30 points! clean up vomit, 85! pay for health insurance, 4,325!—and I’d finally get the credit I deserved for all that I did.