Pay gap politics: How does your partner’s salary affect your relationship?

Whilst the pay gap is an issue that most people will acknowledge hinders women’s careers, the effects that this can have on the relationships between men and women are rarely considered.
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The fact that men not only earn more than women for the same jobs, but also hold a far greater percentage of high-power, highly-paid jobs accounts for the commonality of the pay gap between husband and wife.

The facts

The most common type of family household, taken from 2015 statistics for the UK, is a married or civil partnership family, at 12.5 million households. This is irrespective of whether or not the couple have children. In this form of family income is often pooled, but this can create huge issues when one partner earns more than the other. Usually this partner will be the husband; whilst the figures have improved over the last few years, in recent times only one in four women earn more than their partners.

Couples who earn a relatively similar amount and feel equal financially have reported a higher level of happiness than those where the wife is on a lower (or no) salary. However, whilst equal couples reported 83 per cent happiness, overall levels still came out surprisingly high at 77 per cent in a 2014 Love and Money poll.

What effect can this have?

A disparity in earnings can engender feelings of guilt on the part of the person earning less, whilst causing annoyance and control in the partner with the earning power. A common effect can be the higher earner making all financial decisions. For example holiday destinations and costs are determined by the partner paying for them. This influence can even extend to decisions as serious as buying a house.

Stress, pressure and resentment can building in the higher-earning partner, who may feel that they’re carrying the relationship financially, and they may not listen to the concerns of their partner.

The sense that if not earning you need to live up to a certain expectation or stereotype can also creep into the mind of the lower earner. This is particularly prevalent in women, who can end up believing they need to fulfil the beautiful, glamourous ‘trophy wife’ stereotype if accompanying their husband to high profile events. The other stereotype is that of the traditional housewife treated like a maid, the belief being that in order to ‘pay their way’ the partner has to make up the pay gap by shouldering the majority of the housework, even if both work the same number of hours.

Why does this pay gap exist?

Aside from the obvious gender pay gap across society, there are a variety of factors in why this gap occurs between husband and wife (focusing on heterosexual marriages because of data available). Children are perhaps the largest factor of all. Articles across the internet will tell you that couples are on increasingly equal financial footing, as the number of stay-at-home mums fell by a third between 1993 and 2015, and was met by a corresponding doubling of stay at home fathers. But in truth, if you double a tiny amount, it’s still tiny. In 2015, there were still 2 million stay at home mums compared to 0.23 million dads.

Childcare becomes an issue as some men can face a sense of emasculation when confronted with a pregnant partner earns a lot more than them. Realistically for the family finances the lower-paid job ought to take the hit and that person stay at home longer for the baby. This can then put pressure on the lower earner to sacrifice their career for monetary stability.

A perhaps more tenuous possible cause of the pay gap within couples is the age gap. The older you are (particularly within the first 10 years of your career when setting out), the more likely you are to have progressed further on your chosen path and be earning a higher salary. In 30 per cent heterosexual marriages, the man is over four years older than the woman (and the majority of total marriages have the man at the same age or older). This substantial difference may well have an effect on pay gap in favour of men. Whilst society will widely accept the ‘half-age plus seven’ rule, this is usually when the woman is younger. When the man is the younger partner, society is less happy with the arrangement – as demonstrated recently with the new French President Macron and his wife.

What to do about it?

Relieving tensions that stem from financial issues is no easy thing, and will require both people in the relationship to face up to the facts. One of you has had more success, has chosen a more lucrative career path, or is further along the line with their career than the other. This will inevitably lead to a greater contribution from them towards shared expenses, but the low earner should avoid then hoarding their own smaller pay as ‘their’ money whilst the higher salary becomes ‘our’ money.

Even though it’s likely to be difficult, complete openness about both your feelings and your finances will be needed to resolve conflict over cash, and a long, thorough conversation can exorcise feelings of resentment, anger or guilt from a relationship. If things still aren’t working consider if you or your partner are placing too much importance on money in your relationship. Whilst we all like to think we can be happy without money, it sadly forms the basis of our lives and is needed for most things – if you can’t sort out financial issues, it may not be something you can move past.

About the author

Alexandra Jane is the writer and editor of graduate careers advice for Inspiring Interns, a graduate recruitment agency. Check out their website to see which internships and graduate jobs are currently available, as well as their graduate jobs Manchester page for further opportunities.

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