I’d always considered myself the more ambitious partner in my marriage. My husband and I got married young, and when my husband complained about his low pay or exhausting hours, I’d encourage him to look for a new job. That was what I always did, at least, when I wasn’t happy where I was.
A year after college, I had my dream job at a women’s lifestyle website as an editor. The path seemed clear to me: I imagined all of the ways I might move up in the company or how I might take my experience there and get an even bigger, better job elsewhere in a few years. I wanted to be a career woman. I wanted to be the boss someday. And if my husband wasn’t interested in that kind of ladder-climbing, it was fine with me — it meant he was more flexible with where I wanted to go next.
In the meantime, my husband and I paid equal amounts toward bills and saved money for our own interests on the side. He didn’t snoop at what my frivolous purchases were and I didn’t look at his. We had a joint bank account where we put in the same amount to cover the costs of our expenses and otherwise had independent accounts.
But then, three years later, I quit that editor job. I didn’t have another one lined up. I wasn’t thinking about jobs at all. Instead, I went hiking for the summer. It had been a dream for years, and I couldn’t think of a better time to do it. While I was gone, my husband paid the bills — the last of the car payments for my car, rent, food for our two dogs, a sky-high summer-in-Phoenix electricity bill. When I came back, I had $1,000 to my name and no job to speak of. He paid the bills then too.
I got uncomfortable fast. It had been one thing for him to pay the bills in a house I wasn’t living in. It felt like an entirely different thing to let him pay for my day-to-day. I’d had a credit card on his account for years but never used it; now I was swiping it at the grocery store several times a week.
I was bored and often lonely. I busied myself during the day with chores and the gym and getting cheap lunches with friends until he got home. When I was working full-time, I was so eager to feel like I had a life outside of work that I’d spend hours on hobbies — hiking, yoga, painting, seeing friends. Now I looked forward to his company.
Still, my mind raced with ways to make my situation feel more “acceptable.” “Should we have a baby?” I found myself thinking, so at least there would be a reason I was at home? In the meantime I turned the thermostat up and tried to limit how much electricity I was using. I sold old bicycles and office supplies that had been sitting unused in a room. I started working on a book, making myself sit down for an hour-and-a-half each morning to work on it.
He didn’t ask me to do these things, but I felt like I had to. I didn’t know how to feel equal if it wasn’t with money.
A former colleague, Becky Bracken, recently found herself relying on her partner’s paycheck too. “I feel guilty and like I’m putting everyone on the team under stress,” Becky told me. “My husband is totally supportive and sweet, but we can both do math. So, pretty much like everything else, my reaction is crippling guilt.”
I could relate. My husband and I strived for an egalitarian relationship, and I felt like I wasn’t holding up my end of the bargain. I wondered if I was working against my own principles, letting a man take care of me. I already felt like I was playing into stereotypical relationship roles, doing laundry and cleaning the kitchen to pass the time. Was this changing the expectations of our partnership?
My discomfort was multiplied by the fact that I was struggling to even want a job. I’d spent the last four months walking through the wilderness. The idea of an office was stifling. I’d scroll through jobs I was qualified for, ones that might make sense as a continuation on my résumé, and want to curl up in a ball. Instead, I applied at bookshops and grocery stores. I considered driving for Uber or Lyft. I signed up to deliver for Postmates.
I told my husband after each application to prove I was trying. He hadn’t asked for proof. I wondered, “Would I be so generous if my husband were in the same position I was?”
I wasn’t sure.
I felt ashamed to feel the way I did and also ashamed to feel ashamed. I knew so many people who were also jobless but didn’t have the luxury of spouses to support them, let alone a spouse who was able to afford to support them. I had an incredible amount of luck and privilege, but mostly I was agonizing over how guilty it made me feel.
I wish I could say I had some grand epiphany. Instead, I reached out to some former clients and colleagues — another privilege — and started freelance writing. I still haven’t received my first paycheck — freelancing is delayed like that — but knowing I was working again provided near-instant relief. Shortly after I started writing, I was offered a temporary job that would allow me to contribute, if only briefly, to bills.
While I was working on this article, my husband was circling around me cleaning the house. I asked him how he felt about my moneyless-ness. “I don’t care. It’s an agreement we already had. I make enough money,” he told me.
I pressed him for more. “You seem happier,” he said, which is true despite my anxieties over what to do about a job. “If I could make less money and be happier I would.” I laughed. Then he kicked me out of the room so he could finish cleaning.
As of 2015, there were only 20 percent of married couples where the husband was primarily responsible for household income. I didn’t expect to be one of them, but for now, I am. Freelancing, particularly starting out, is not an especially reliable source of income. It’s one of the least stable jobs I’ve pursued. It’s also one of the only jobs that has made me feel a spark of ambition again.
By the time this is published, that temporary job will already be over, and until I find the next gig, my income is unlikely to provide much in the way of financial help. So I’ll just have to learn to appreciate my husband’s generosity.