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How To Talk Gender Roles and Money In Your Marriage To Deepen Financial Intimacy

I was talking with Gabriella when she realized there were no role models in her life of women and leadership. 

When I heard this statement, it got me thinking about what that must be like for women. There is still plenty of room for me to understand and grow there.

The question of gender and role modeling is such a meaningful one and personally relevant for so many of us—but likely for a variety of different reasons.

For Me, It Was Being a Stay-At-Home Dad With No Role Models

I grew up with a father who worked full-time as an electrician, and I loved the work that he did. It always seemed so interesting to me, as I could never quite understand how electricity worked. It all just seemed magical.

As I reflect back on my childhood, it’s striking to me that there were no men at home during the day raising kids while women went to work. Yes, I know this is not true in all cultural contexts—but in my case, this was true.

Fast-forward to my late twenties: I married my wife, who is a dentist, and we were trying to figure out our roles and responsibilities together for this next phase of life, as we wanted children. She loved her work, and I was—let’s say—the least not certain, and didn’t have the earning capacity. So, I decided to stay home with our first son.

All my male friends were professionally educated and working on building their careers. Many of the wives also had graduate degrees, but some were leaving the workplace to raise kids… meaning that, once again, there were no stay-at-home dads in my cultural context.

I would hear about the occasional mythical other stay-at-home dad, but I never met him. Keep in mind, this was not the 1980s; this was 2011–2016!

The social and cultural support for stay-at-home dads was minimal, and the reality of seeing another man with a baby during the middle of the day was nearly unheard-of, especially in a sea of stay-at-home moms.

This had a profound impact on my sense of self and identity, and I struggled to make sense of it. In my simple understanding, if my values say one thing, then my experience should follow—i.e., I support women in the workplace and being successful. I support men being stay-at-home dads. I support any gender identity in any cultural role—yet there was more at play.

 

For Us, It Was Her Work As A Dentist

In my time working with countless couples, I have come to appreciate just how deep and significant gender role identity development runs and how it is such an important part of our social identity. For the most part, we can go along with our internalized expectations until we (or our partners) step outside our social identity.

My wife was taking on a professional role and making great money that took her experientially outside of my lived experiences. On the whole, this is a great thing for both of us, but there were still some invisible forces at play that created discomfort.

As it turns out, I did not have an internal model of what this actually looked like in real life. How are the roles of breadwinner played out? What does it mean for me, as a male, to not be a breadwinner? It wasn’t until I stepped into that role that I found myself having to contend with that reality.

I had many friends and acquaintances tell me they would love to have a breadwinning wife—and while I could understand where they were coming from, there was an empathic miss in this observation. I felt like I was unable to talk openly and honestly about my own internal struggles with this transition.

Our minds, brains, and bodies can be very sensitive to changes in our cultural environment. Our ability to resiliently move through experiencing ourselves in different roles than the ones we have internalized for ourselves can lead to significant psychological and physiological distress.

 

For the Two of You, What Do Gender Roles and Money Mean?

Where has there been a missing role model related to roles and responsibilities that get distributed based on gender?

I am not arguing that roles and responsibilities should be based on gender or shouldn’t, but I am acknowledging that we do it both consciously and unconsciously. One of the most important things we can do to improve our financial intimacy is to become reflective on how gender role modeling has informed our relational expectations.

When it comes to managing money in the household, I see the legacy of gender-based roles playing out significantly.

Gender roles have each person dividing up responsibilities for the household finances.

When one person is responsible for “earning,” while another is responsible for “household spending,” and another is responsible for “investing,” it can mean there are gaps in understanding the priorities for the family.

As a couple, there exists a shared responsibility for the financial outcome of your household. Without a shared vision and responsibility for the financial well-being of your family, major resentments and misunderstandings can build up.

Being able to have an open and honest discussion about your shared household finances is likely to break internalized gender roles from the families and cultures you were raised in (there may be very clear and explicit instructions from your family, religious tradition, and other cultural contexts that assigned rigidly defined gender roles to certain money responsibilities).

To achieve financial intimacy with your partner, you will have to go through a period of questioning together what it means to respect the gender role you witnessed and experienced, and then find the freedom to challenge and redefine how the two of you want to navigate money together.

In Reflection and Action

Searching out and looking for gender counterstereotypical role models will take initiative by both you and your partner.

If you are in an intimate partnership and either of you wants to be—or is actively in—a different culturally sanctioned role for your gender identity, please take some time to reflect on how significant this is for you and your partner.

It can be easy to minimize or dismiss the significance, especially when there are positive benefits to achieving the counterstereotypical role; at the same time, however, there can also be burdens to being in this new role, as your mind and body try to integrate across your different lived experiences.

Unexpected gender roles and management of household finances are elements that often come up during Therapy-Informed Financial Planning™. This may look like the husband managing the investing and telling his wife (directly or indirectly) not to worry about it, or the wife can complaining bitterly about being micromanaged on her household spending for the family, as just a couple of examples.

If you believe the interaction of gender and money is playing a role in the two of you achieving the financial life you want to live, consider scheduling a 30-minute consultation to talk about your unique situation.

Ed Coambs

Ed Coambs

Therapy Informed Financial Planner at Healthy Love and Money

Working with many women who have only had part of the financial picture but not the whole family’s financial picture, I have seen and heard about the stress that it creates for them. Including panic attacks, depression, anxiety, anger, and missed opportunities to participate in what matters to them most.

Empowering women to see, know, and understand the whole financial picture of their lives transforms the way they show up in the world. Allowing them to enjoy themselves, their friendships, their relationships with their kids, and their intimate partners.

When women feel confident that they can partner with their intimate partner and be seen as equal, it restores intimacy and connection in their most meaningful relationships and models for the next generation of women what is possible.