Dear Neil: Help me with what I should do. I’m 29, and my wife of three years is unemployed and only occasionally interested in looking for work. In the meantime, I am needing to support both of us, pay the mortgage and pay for her health care and prescription drugs. That leaves me very little left for my own interests and needs. Even so, that isn’t enough for her. She also wants manicures, pedicures, beauty parlor appointments and massages, which she charges on our joint charge card. So we are going into greater levels of debt every month, because I don’t earn enough to pay for all of this. Then she told me that she wanted us to spend a week visiting her family, which would require me taking time off of work, as well as airplane flights and other costs. When I said we can’t afford to go visit her family, she raged and became verbally abusive toward me.
I have always been a generous and giving person, emotionally as well as financially. I have been extremely sympathetic about the multiple jobs she has been turned down for, or when she has rather severe pre-menstrual crying jags. But I don’t feel I have a wife who’s giving back to me or who is being responsive to my feelings and needs—especially my fear of losing everything we’ve got because we’re being so irresponsible with money and debt. What would you advise me to do?
Going Off the Deep End in Australia
Dear Australia: An intimate relationship is a blend between two people. There’s what you want and need, and there’s what she wants and needs—and both are very important. If either of you feel that your needs are not being honored, there’s going to be trouble. And that’s exactly what you’ve described is happening between you and your wife.
You are getting what you have permitted. You have been allowing a consistent violation of the budget over time, so it should come as no great surprise that your wife now assumes that violating the budget every month is OK. In this way, you have not stood up for what is important to you, and you have allowed what’s unacceptable to somehow be viewed as OK. So you are getting from your wife what you have, over time, permitted.
Everyone gets what they permit in a relationship, by the way. You are trying to be generous and accommodating, so you don’t say anything about the manicures and beauty parlor appointments, hoping that such appointments will cheer her up and help her to feel better. But before long, she has come to take such generosity and accommodation for granted, and you are now caught in the impending financial disaster that you have allowed and silently agreed to. And as a bonus, you now get to be the “bad guy” for taking away what she has come to assume she is entitled to.
The other dynamic that you’re describing is that, although you’ve been indulging your wife with a fair amount of creature comforts, she isn’t respectful toward you, and is demanding more and more from you. So she’s become demanding, and you are growing increasingly resentful toward her.
The two of you need to negotiate a fair relationship, where both of you feel your needs and wishes are taken into consideration and honored, and where sacrifices are shared more or less equally. So I would recommend you lay it all out on the table. Here’s our income, here’s what we’re spending. Here’s how much debt we’re incurring. Here’s what will happen when we can no longer meet our payments. These are our essential bills, and everything else is discretionary. So how are we going to make all of this work, and not allow our ship to sink?
You must stand up for yourself, your values and what matters to you in this conversation—and don’t agree to anything that will sink the ship, period. There also needs to be clear accountability for how much each of you get to spend on non-necessities, and what happens if one person goes over the budget. You must insist that the two of you have to tighten your belts and do without certain things you want.
You can also reassure her that all of this belt tightening is temporary, and will change when she lands a job and adds more money to the pot. But you cannot continue to be generous, giving and tolerant at the expense of yourself, your credit and what you feel is important, because before long your resentment will overpower the love that you feel for her—and then your relationship will really be in rough shape.