Thursday, December 02, 2010

How to make your relationship better: pretend you live in the 1950's!

As women have begun to be more present in high-earning careers such as business and law, among others, more and more articles are published about how (heterosexual) women can't find men to form relationships with who aren't intimidated, or made to feel inadequate by, the woman's financial success compared to their own. In one such article, Katrin Bennhold of the New York Times wonders, "is female empowerment killing romance?"
Sexual attraction in the 21st century, it seems, still feeds on 20th-century stereotypes. Now, as more women match or overtake men in education and the labor market, they are also turning traditional gender roles on their head, with some profound consequences for relationship dynamics.

There is a growing army of successful women in their 30s who have trouble finding a mate and have been immortalized in S.A.T.C. and the Bridget Jones novels. There are the alpha-women who end up with alpha-men but then decide to put career second when the babies come. But there is also a third group: a small but growing number of women who out-earn their partners, giving rise to an assortment of behavioral contortions aimed at keeping the appearance of traditional gender roles intact.

So, does female empowerment kill romance? Sure, so long as we define "romance" as men financially supporting women. Which most of us don't, and all of us shouldn't.

Let's explore the reasons why there might be a problem. The women cited in the article are making more money than their male partners, and those men feel insecure and inadequate as a result, because they're used to high salaries being the marker of what a good human is, an honor that was once, not too long ago, bestowed primarily upon men. Now the possibility that a woman -- a person who was once relegated to the home, subsisting on whatever money her husband was willing or able to provide to the family -- may now overtake him in terms of her wages or salary. How do they remedy the situation? Well, they could, together, understand that the feelings of inadequacy are irrational, and that they need to be worked through and eventually eliminated, because women having access to the same means of earning a lot of money is a good thing, and not worthy of feelings of inadequacy and inferiority. They could also take a broader look at their relationship to see what they really want from it, and what they value and contribute. Earning money isn't the only way that a person contributes to a relationship, be it a casual dating relationship, or a long-term marriage or partnership.

But no,

Ms. Domscheit-Berg, who is also active in the European Women’s Management Development International Network, has three bits of advice for well-paid women: Leave the snazzy company car at home on the first date; find your life partner in your 20s, rather than your 30s, before you’ve become too successful. And go after men who draw their confidence from sources other than money, like academics and artists.

“The more different their activity from your own, the better,” said Ms. Domscheit-Berg, “because that makes an immediate comparison harder.”

Instead, women should hide their financial success from men in order to trick them into a relationship -- or get them into a relationship before letting on an intent to be financially successful -- or they should hide their financial success in public in order to maintain the perception of sexist traditions whose slow elimination have made it possible for women to gain access to the financial success in the first place.

Couples can, will, and do compromise on a number of issues in order to maintain a harmonious relationship. For example,

Anne-Laure Kiechel is an investment banker in Paris who makes more than five times more than her boyfriend, a communications consultant. She keeps watch on their finances and pays for all big invisible expenses, like vacations.

But in public, it is he who insists on pulling out his credit card to avoid, he said, looking like a “gigolo.”

“It makes me laugh,” Ms. Kiechel said. “But if it pleases him, that’s fine.” (Not long ago, he asked her to book hotels in his name because he doesn’t like being referred to as “Mr. Kiechel” upon arrival; future bookings would be made in both names, she said.)

Timothy Eustis, once a teacher in New York City, is a proud stay-at-home dad and occasional wine consultant, who moved to France with his wife, Sarah, when she was offered a senior management post at the French lingerie brand Etam. Neither has a problem that she is the breadwinner and her salary aliments the joint account. But both cherish what he calls “those little traditions” to keep the romantic spark alive.

“I make an effort to hold the door, I almost always drive the car, and when it’s time to pay the bill, I pay the bill,” he said. “Sarah probably intentionally lets me do these things because she thinks it benefits the relationship.”

Working out arrangements where the man is the one to hand the debit or credit card from the the joint account that the woman largely finances to the server at a nice restaurant seems a small and harmless concession for many people. The larger issue, of course, fails to be addressed.

What also remains unaddressed is the implication that these small moves toward equality between women and men are largely women's responsibility. We've "won" access to high-paying careers (leaving aside the misogyny still rampant in many high-paying fields, making climbing any kind of career ladder more difficult for women than it is for men), but we have to be the ones to make sure that our male partners are comfortable with this change?

I'm sympathetic to the men in these stories. I'm sure that such a change from cultural norms that have been instilled in us from birth is difficult, and the societal reactions to a woman being the sole earner, or the half of the couple who earns the most, can be brutal to men. Wanting to avoid the potential social punishment for not having enough money to financially support your wife or girlfriend is understandable. It's not helpful, though, to instruct women to maintain the facade of an outdated, sexist tradition-- especially when she is expected to do so by publicly denying a part of her identity. Where are the articles instructing men on how to feel less intimidated, how to accept that moves toward equality are good things, how they might go about making themselves feel more comfortable with their wives' financial success? Why is the responsibility on women to do it for them? What is the man's responsibility here? As of now, it doesn't appear that he has any, unless remembering to act macho in the face of public scrutiny is one of them.

What also remains unaddressed is the continued acceptance that money is the only way of measuring "success." This leaves out entire segments of people who contribute a great deal to society, like artists, musicians, teachers, local law enforcement, and scores of other people in low-paid, but eternally necessary, fields.

Now, I'm writing about this without having ever really been affected by the issue, myself. I've never placed any importance on money when it comes to relationships. This could be due to my own interests and extra-curricular activities of choice not requiring a lot of money, or my (usually) inexpensive taste. It could also be due to my amusing history of finding boyfriends at workplaces, where I can expect that me and my mate are probably making the same amount of money. Essentially, the only requirement I've ever really made in terms of partners and income is that I don't have to be responsible for any of their financial obligations. I don't want to be in a position where I'm paying someone's rent or their car payment, or buying them groceries. I just require that my partner be self-sufficient, and how that self-sufficiency happens is largely irrelevant, as long as nothing that I consider immoral or unethical is happening. And if I want to do something fun that costs money, I'm always happy to foot the bill. It's the other person's obligations that I don't want. Not too much to ask for.

Interestingly, I, too, would feel uncomfortable with a partner making a significantly higher amount of money than me. The reason, I've gathered, is due to the fear that the man in question would think that I was only interested in the relationship with him because of his income. Don't get me wrong; if my husband's music career were to take off, or if he were to become a high-paid college professor or author, I'd be more than happy with the increase in income. He would remember, though, that I didn't seek out a relationship with him when he had that money; we started dating seriously when he was a couch-surfing, unemployed student, which was much more endearing than anything. The fear that he thinks I'm only in it for the money wouldn't exist.

I'd like to see fewer articles telling women how to make their insecure male partners feel better, and more about how men can fix their problem with this increasing equality themselves, or how couples can work together to both be more comfortable with changing relationship dynamics.

Also check out Jill's take on this article over at Feministe.