What being financially shamed taught me about relationships

When my then boyfriend ended our relationship, I never expected him to say it was because I was too poor.

There are many reasons he could have given for breaking up.

The spark was gone.

He was no longer attracted to me.

My habit of singing Muppet songs in the shower was indisputably weird.

Instead, he said the one thing that managed to tap into all of my long-held insecurities.

"I want someone who can keep up with me," he said.

We had spent the entire summer together travelling to various music festivals and had just returned from a two-week whirlwind vacation to Los Angeles and Palm Springs.

What more did he want?

Noticing my confusion, he added: "Financially. You just don't make as much money as I do."

I was in my early 30s at the time, making US$35,000 to US$40,000 a year as a freelancer.

He was in his mid-40s, earning in the low six figures.

We were both responsible with our finances. I just made significantly less than he did.

This did not seem to be an issue, until it was.

We had several discussions about money during our eight months together. While he enjoyed treating me to fancy dinners and concert tickets, we agreed to split everything else 50-50.

Our relationship was not perfect, but I thought when it came to our finances, we were okay.

In this sense, the break-up blindsided me.

Growing up, my family was not poor, but we were broke. And it showed. While my classmates were dropped off at school in shiny, new minivans, our family car was a 1970s Volkswagen Beetle that was so rusted, you could see the lines on the road when we shifted lanes.

Instead of a dinette set, our dining-room table was an old door propped up on two sawhorses.

From homemade yogurt to the Cabbage Patch Kid imitation doll she fashioned herself, my mum had the kind of homespun style that any traditionalist would recognise.

We were unconventional by other people's standards, but my parents always made me feel loved and secure. The only time I ever felt different was when another kid would make fun of our car or ask why our living room was so "weird".

(My mum had reupholstered our ageing sofa in a loud print fabric).

Despite any embarrassment I felt as a kid, I am grateful for how I grew up. My mum taught me how to survive and thrive with less.

However, when my then boyfriend told me that I did not make enough money, I felt as if I was six years old again, watching ashamed and horrified as someone kicked my DIY-ed Cabbage Patch Kid down the street because, she said, it was "stupid and fake".

Money is a tender point for many people. As Ms Alysha Jeney, a therapist in Denver, says: "Our income, career, debt and relationship with money all come from an emotional place."

For many of us, our sense of identity is wrapped up in our roles and finances. As Ms Jeney says: "If we misunderstand this about our partner, we can easily become fixated on the amount of income that they generate, versus understanding their intention, their values and emotional experience in the context of work and income."

In my relationship, my boyfriend and I had completely different lifestyle expectations.

He loved any experience that had the letters VIP attached to it, while I am more of a taco truck kind of person.

Because of this, I always felt as if I had to defend my choices to a partner who did not necessarily value them.

In reality, we just had different consumption habits.

Even if my former partner and I had had identical incomes, I would have spent mine differently.

Our values never aligned - something we might have noticed if we had not been so focused on the dollars and cents.

Ms Jeney says: "If you make less money, that doesn't mean you're less important. If you make more money, that doesn't mean you do more in the relationship.

"You both have to establish unique but equitable roles that are specific to your family's needs and value system."

Since my relationship with my VIP-obsessed boyfriend ended, I have taken a more value-centric approach to assessing potential new partners.

If someone likes to eat out and travel, how does he approach these experiences?

What was his upbringing like?

Will he wince every time I use a coupon?

I am less interested in his net worth and more curious about his overall relationship to money and whether it is compatible with mine.


• The writer is a syndicated columnist.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 08, 2017, with the headline 'What being financially shamed taught me about relationships'. Print Edition | Subscribe