After 27 Years of Marriage, Why Don’t We Have a Partnership?

Dear Neil: My husband and I have been married for 27 years. He gives 110% at work, and barely any effort at home. It has been like that throughout our entire marriage. We both work, and I had the primary responsibility of raising our 4 children, who are all adults now. I have a good relationship with all 4 children, and he has a distant relationship with them.

We have finally reached a stage where my husband is earning good money, and he feels he is entitled to spend it on whatever he likes without consulting me. My income is irregular and rather meager. So he tells me that I do not financially contribute to our relationship, and the clear message is that he can spend whatever he wants to, but I’m on a budget.

I have been a good mother, and have worked outside the home since our youngest was 4 years old. My husband makes me feel undervalued because I have nothing tangible to show for my years of work in my varied roles as a chauffeur/nurse/teacher/cleaner/accountant/cook for him and our children—while also working outside the home. It has gotten to the point where I am afraid to confront him about these financial issues because it is like waving a red flag in front of a bull, and we then head down that same road about my lack of financial contribution to our relationship.

Can you help me?

Disillusioned in Wellington, New Zealand

Dear Disillusioned: There’s a difference between a marriage and a partnership. In a partnership, we are both working to support our home, our family, our lifestyle and our future, but we may not be working the same way and giving the same things. Perhaps I pay the mortgage, and you keep our children safe, happy and healthy. Or perhaps you buy the groceries, but I am the primary cook. You might normally keep things clean and tidy, but I am the one who buys us tickets to a concert. You keep us affectionate and romantic, I keep the checkbook balanced.

What I’m describing is a partnership where we both contribute to the well-being of the relationship, the family and each other, but in different ways. Your husband clearly sees his contribution as more important and more valuable than yours, and the concept of partnership appears hugely lacking in your marriage. Partnerships attempt to be fair and equal to each person, recognizing the contributions that both parties offer, and the sacrifices each has endured.

Anyone who knows anything about raising 4 children understands that that may be a harder and more challenging job than anything the work world might throw at us, and it certainly deserves credit and acknowledgement. But it occurs to me that this may be one of the reasons he has adopted such a rigid position regarding “his” money. I wonder if it troubles him that the kids have a good relationship with you, but a distant one with him—and therefore he justifies his stance by saying to himself: “She has the kids. I have money. We both got something valuable, and we’re both being compensated suitably and appropriately.”

But the law says that you are equals, and that if you two ever divorced, you would be entitled to roughly half of the money and assets. 50/50 more or less, and you would still presumably have a good relationship with the kids, which he may never have.

This is going to require an extremely sober discussion between the two of you. Don’t wave the red flag in front of the bull. Instead, ask him how happy he is in the relationship. Is he satisfied or more saddened by the 27 year marriage? How does he feel about your respective contributions: did he feel in the past that the division of roles and responsibilities were roughly equal and equivalent, or that the burden unfairly fell too heavily on him? Did he enjoy being a parent? How does he feel about his relationships with his kids now? How does he feel about you and the marriage now? Other than the financial piece, is there anything he would like different in the marriage that would make a big difference to him?

I am betting that your relationship has grown cold and distant, and that he is either angry with you, or unhappy in the marriage, or both. Before you can change his self-absorbed attitude about money, you are likely going to have to confront the emotions that are driving him and his behavior. You may not like his answers, but give him a fair hearing and let him speak about his emotions both past and present, and don’t react or get defensive. You’re trying to open the lines of communication, not shut them down.

But if he refuses this conversation, or dismisses it, he is telling you that he is almost completely checked out of the marriage, that he doesn’t care how you feel about financial inequality, and he’s no longer trying to make the relationship better.

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