How do you define power in a relationship? Well, when it comes to money, I usually talk about two different kinds of power. The first kind of power is earning power, based on who brings home the most money. The second kind is management power, which comes from who decides how the money will be spent and allocated.
When couples fight about money, it is typically about how it will be used, a struggle over management power. Couples who feel they have equal say over how the money is to be spent are the happiest couples. But, getting to this point is not easy.
With regards to earning power, men tend to directly associate money with power. Often, without realizing it, they take more control if they are the higher earning partner. Women tend to shy away from seeing money as power and see it instead as a resource to be used.
One of the first sociological surveys that asked about money studied 12,000 couples. Here are some of the interesting results:
1. Heterosexual couples that live together generally keep their money separate and value equality highly. Conflict comes when one person does not earn as much as the other, and the couple has to decide whether to forgo certain things or have an unequal contribution.
2. Married couples fight the most about money, especially early in the marriage. When a man has a higher earning power than his wife, he tends to take more of the money management power, too. When a wife earns significantly more than her husband, she tends to give away her management power to him to equalize the balance of power.
3. No matter who earns the most, lesbian couples tend to distribute decision-making (management) power equally. Meanwhile, gay male couples tend to have very clear and obvious power dynamics related to who earns the most (earning power).
Regardless of who earns more and decides how the money is spent, equality is always an issue. The unequal balance of power, either kind, can only lead to problems down the road. I always advise that when couples talk about their financial matters, they also need to discuss how to best share the responsibilities that come with spending their money.
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