"I married beneath me," Lady Nancy Astor once said. "All women do."
It's been a century since the viscountess ditched her first husband, and by all indications, she was right. According to a Pew Research Center report, the number of married women making more money than their husbands has gone up to 22 percent from four percent in 1970.
Intrigued by the figures, I brought up the topic with my girlfriends last night over dinner at Boa.
"It matters," said my friend Katerina, 28. "It's not really about me – I don't want a man's money. I have my money. It's a power thing. Money makes men feel powerful. If he already feels powerful, I don't have to worry about making him feel like he's The Man. He's making a killing, pulling his weight and then some – he already knows he's The Man, so I don't have to cater to his ego and can go around doing whatever I want."
Kiki, in her mid-30s, had similar ideas about it: "If he's not determined, goal-oriented and working his ass off so his situation is temporary, it's emasculating."
Is the male ego so fragile? I threw the question to Twitter, a dozen men immediately responded, saying they didn't see a problem with being involved with a woman who made substantially more money than they did.
Then I decided to try something else: look back on my experience and analyze some of the relationships I'd had since college, and see if I seemed to have any preference, or if I could make any correlation between income and the level of fulfillment I'd experienced with each individual.
(I will take any excuse I can get to play with spreadsheets, it's true.)
My sample varied widely, but I discovered that of the seven most satisfying relationships, three were with men who had little money, three were with men who had just enough, and one, with a man whose family had money.
Those focused, self-made men raking in the serious cash and those focused on trying to get there had consistently led to underwhelming love affairs.
I had rated the relationships on a scale from one to five – and on gut alone. As I looked over the data again, I tried to think of the reasons why I'd given these top seven such high ratings.
The answer was simple and almost stereotypically feminine: it's the little things, silly.
What made these men stand out was not stuff or the idea of security – it was time and effort. None of them filled my house and office with all the roses in the city. None of them decked me in diamonds or furs. They took me on strolls in gardens and deserted beaches, strange cities, took me cruising on back roads in the dead of night, they read me to sleep, they wrote songs and poems, they made me art, sculptures, even furniture with their own hands.
This isn't to say that well-established, self-made men don't do any of these things, of course. But time and time again, I think about the top candidates in that category and recall something one of them used to always say: “It costs me more money to stop and pick up a hundred dollar bill than it does to just keep on walking.”
The man who has earned a substantial piece of the pie on his own knows the value of time. With those I'd dated, this notion carried into our relationship. There is nothing inherently wrong with taking the opportunity to turn an average conference trip into a sexy vacation – but if those are the only getaways a man can handle, I'm not that into it.
My ex-husband Richard and I used to fight about this all the time.
I recalled a trip to my native Peru in 2007. Exhausted from lunches, dinners and other social calls, I was more than thrilled by the notion of staying in bed late and doing very little all day. Richard wouldn't hear of it. Delighted with sudden “down time”, he packed up his laptop and went off to a cabina to see whether he could find something work-related with which to occupy himself.
"Most of us were taught that leisure equals sloth, laziness, idleness or shiftlessness," Paula Fontaine had written in an editorial for IN magazine, which I'd picked up on the plane on the way to Peru from Los Angeles, "'Idle hands are the devil’s playthings,' or so the saying goes."
I found it so peculiar at the time that an editor of what was essentially a leisure magazine would feel compelled to justify leisure to readers. Just a few days later, I became intimately acquainted with the reason why: a lot of Americans seem to need all the help they can get in the leisure department.
It isn't just that I grew up in a tropical island where everything is laid back or that my parents didn’t want me to work until I was done with college — it's more innate than that. The concept of success in relation to a career is completely foreign to me. As for merely doing stuff to keep busy when you could be lounging in bed, in a cab, a boat or a plane, leisurely strolling the a city or just reading for the pleasure of a story? Insane.
Later on that same summer day in Peru, having fired a few people and hand-held two deals to completion, Richard met me at a street café in a little alley off the Plaza de Armas.
"It amazes me," he told me as he took a seat. "You can just sit here and sip coffee and smoke and read for hours and hours. If they didn’t close, I could come back in three days and you'd still be here."
"Well," I replied, "I don't know whether I'd be here, but I would love it if coffee shops and restaurants never closed. Coffee -- no, drink in general, and food, too -- they invite conversation and introspection. The sensual pleasure opens the mind to the mental pleasure. So much the better when you can share this with someone."
"You could spend your whole life sitting, drinking, eating, smoking and talking."
"And just what is wrong with that?" I asked. "You think that work makes the man. You are not your job. Your job and what you achieve there is not the end-all, be-all. You know what the end-all, be-all is? Your enjoyment of life. You shouldn't live to work, you should work so you can live. In America, there is very little of that anymore; people work like life is work. And it isn't. No wonder everyone’s medicated. They’ve forgotten how to enjoy."
I happened to be reading Henry Miller’s The Books In My Life at the time and I read a passage to him that I felt was very appropriate:
The Frenchman 'loves' his food. We [Americans] take food for nourishment or because we are unable to dispense with the habit. The Frenchman, even if he is a man of the cities, is closer to the soil than the American. He does not tamper with or refine the products of the soil. He relishes homely meals as much as the creations of the gourmet. He likes things fresh, not canned or refrigerated…. How we really loathe all that is sensuous and sensual! I believe most earnestly that what repels Americans more than immorality is the pleasure to be derived from the enjoyment of the five senses. We are not a 'moral' people by any means…. We are not individuals, neither are we members of a great collectivity. We are neither democrats, communists, socialists nor anarchists. We are an unruly mob. And the sign by which we are known is vulgarity.
Richard contested that he loved good food. Then he looked at his watch and asked what we were doing next.
That evening, at my grandparents', I brought up the matter to my grandmother once my grandfather and Richard had left the room.
"You can't learn leisure," my grandmother told me. "The appreciation of leisure is innate, wholly human; unfortunately, Americans stifle this talent, first in men and now in women. It isn't so much a matter of wealth as it is one of culture. Even the poorest man here can tell you about his enjoyment. In the United States, the cultivation of leisure has been lost. They have their consumerism, but it is a cheap attempt at fine-living -- they make their luxury a career! Tell me, how much can they enjoy something if they are so concerned about having the latest? This brand, that car, the house here and there? They don’t pioneer in delight. They make it a business transaction, poor things."
Now, I wouldn't go as far as to say that this is a problem all Americans have, but it seems fairly prominent in this country where the sweat of your brow makes the Dream a reality. And no one personifies this problem better than the self-made man.
In a world where women -- while we still tend to earn less than men in most industries -- can get their own things and attain their own independence and security, the focus shifts to time and attention.
And who has the time? Men who aren't conventionally employed, men who work nine-to-fives and leave work there, and men who don't have to work. I'm not saying I want a man with no aspirations. I just want a man whose aspiration in life is success in enjoyment, not success as defined by wealth and clout.
Financial limits can also inspire creativity. What could be a call to his secretary to order all the red roses in all flower shops within a 50 mile radius ("What should I have them write on the cards?" "I don't know, think of something clever. She likes physics.") becomes a triptych of your likeness, pop art-style, silkscreened in a friend's basement. A reservation at a fancy restaurant becomes a picnic at the botanical gardens. An anniversary diamond ring becomes a box full of little papers to draw, one by one, each inscribed with a little adventure you two have shared.
In short: I judge men by how hard they live and how much time and effort they devote to me, not how much they make.
I don't foresee being married again, but you can bet I'll very likely be dating "beneath me," meaning: above and beyond the expected romance.
AV Flox is the editor of Sex and the 405 -- what your newspaper would look like if it had a sex section.
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