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Debt-Sharing and Mismatched Ambition

My husband is a generally wonderful partner, except for one issue. He refuses to pay one cent of my hefty school loans. I am a lawyer and owe about $100k. He feels I went to law school before we were married and therefore he is not responsible for them. We contribute jointly to household expenses and provide for our child, but anything extra he earns goes straight into his secret bank account, whereas every cent I earn goes toward the loans with little personal money left for me. Every time I want to take a trip or buy new appliances or whatnot, he says “if you didn’t have those loans, we could.” I cannot get him to understand that those loans are what enable me to earn $90k a year and therefore he benefits from them, too. I asked him if he’d rather I was a barista making $9/hour and he responded that at least I wouldn’t have the loans. Is he being a big jerk, or does he have a right to not want to be responsible for student debt I took on before we knew each other?

A good rule of thumb when giving advice: don’t assume what works for you will work for everyone else. Just because some marrieds pool their debts, that doesn’t mean everyone should. Lots of couples find it better to manage their money separately. And maybe they’re right? After all, my thoroughly scientific research proves beyond doubt that “financial problems” are the #1 reason for divorce.

Also, your husband’s being a big jerk.

Let’s put aside the general question of whether married people should keep one big pot of money. Let’s even table the legal question (which, being a lawyer, you understand better than me) about how much sense this makes when, if one of you kicks it, the other most likely inherits the dead one’s pile of gold or bills. 

Let’s focus on the being a big jerk.

It’s insensitive for your husband to resent the burden of your student loans while refusing to help you pay them. If marriage is a partnership, he’s being a shitty partner. If I refuse to help you carry your bags, I ought to at least stop moaning about how slowly you walk.

But maybe things are more complicated than your letter implies. Perhaps your husband explained, before you got married, that it was important for him to maintain a sense of financial autonomy. Maybe this fulfills some deep emotional need in him. Or maybe he thought your current arrangement would foster independence and mutual respect — the idea being that you stay together because you want to, not because you can’t afford to live apart. Perhaps you even agreed with all this, back then, when your loans weren’t such a millstone and you didn’t feel so much like the poor girl at the feast.

Still, if you ever did agree, you don’t anymore. Your husband’s actions are causing you pain, and you can’t even get him to listen. This makes him a jerk.

Good partners don’t decide their behavior towards their spouses on the basis of abstract rights: they understand the difference between marriage and moral philosophy.

Good partners don’t keep secret bank accounts from the people they love, unless — oh, I don’t know — they live inside an episode of White Collar. This isn’t because your husband has no right to confidentiality; it’s because secrecy is inimical to trust.

Bottom line: If my wife tells me that something I’m doing is hurting her, then I have the responsibility to listen and try to empathize — even if I disagree with her, even if I think I have the right to act as I please.

I don’t give a shit what married people do with their money. I hate it when people are jerks to those who depend on them. Whether you agreed to this arrangement or not, you’re no longer content to carry the burden of your educational loans by yourself. Your husband has the right not to help you, if he so chooses; but, if he loves you and he’s not an utter jerk, he has the obligation to show that he cares.

My husband and I have been waffling on the kid question for a long time and we are almost never on the same page. We are worried about our finances, about the economy, about taking care of his mom as she gets older, about raising a kid in this mess. He’s worried he’ll be like his dad. I’m worried about giving life to something that will hurt and get sick and eventually die. Sometimes we are both nihilistic and that’s fun and sometimes someone is more nihilistic than the other, and that’s fun too. A couple months ago I decided, yes, yes, I want to have a kid, for sure. But he’s been more and more stressed out about our future. I want to say, things will happen when they happen, we’ll figure it out together, and you don’t have to be stuck in your head because we’ll do it together. Every discussion we have about it ends with someone’s head getting stuck in a raincloud of doom and the other person feeling miserable about it.

But, Married Dude, what if he doesn’t want to have kids and I do? What do we do? In a couple years, I’m hitting my self imposed time limit for kids, where I decided, if I don’t have a kid by this time, I guess I won’t have a kid. Why is it so easy for other people to decide? Why are all my other friends so sure this is what they want to do? Why are we making it hard on ourselves?

Why does anyone decide to have kids? They’re noisy, expensive, and they DIDN’T ASK TO BE BORN, ALRIGHT! They derail women’s careers and they blight perfectly good sex lives. My own handsome little boy is the most difficult individual I’ve ever met. Not a day goes by when he doesn’t make me confront my manifold failures as a father. I’ve never drunk so much in my life.

But, oh, how that little bugger fills my heart. You should see the smile on my face as I write.

The True Story of How We Decided to Have Kids: It was Hallowe’en and a beautiful toddler girl came to our door wearing a yellow chicken suit. She smiled and she stumbled and she sang her trick-or-treat song. Something shifted in the physics of our marriage that night, as if our bodies were suddenly locked in a new orbit, a gravitational dance both terminal and unexpected. You know when religious people talk about mystery? Well, I suddenly knew what they meant. It meant living in a fucking D.H. Lawrence novel.

What I’m saying is that there’s never any moment the accounting adds up. There’s no sweet spot when all the reasons not to have kids are suddenly outweighed by the reasons you should. If what distinguishes us from the gods is that we die, then having kids represents our best hope of immortality. But what sort of maniac wants to be immortal? The gods were assholes, after all.

In the end, most everyone I know got pregnant by accident or went on gut feeling.

And here’s your real problem. An ex-girlfriend of mine recently split up with her husband after he gave her an ultimatum: agree to have kids or we’re done. Too rough, right? My first instinct was to say, “Fuck that guy.” My second and third, too. But what if his mysterious moment was just like mine, only irrepressible and, worst of all, lonely? Is a mismatch in reproductive drives sufficient reason to split up? I hate to think so, but I’ve never felt that kind of longing. I’ve never had to choose between losing a lover and losing the dream of loving a child.

I dearly hope you never have to choose. For now, though, I think you should cut yourself some slack. You have a couple of years; most likely, you’ve got more. (That’s the good thing about self-imposed deadlines: they shift.) Meanwhile, keep talking. When you feel despair come down, remember your own wise words: “we’ll figure it out together.” The rainclouds will roll in; they’ll roll out. You’ll help each other — and one day you may find yourself no longer caring so much about the weather.

As for your friends, don’t give them another thought. Live your own life, not theirs. In any case, I doubt they’re as certain as they appear to be. Scratch the surface of a parent and you’ll find a mix of fear and breathless hope. None of us really know what we’re doing. We’re assholes, too.

My boyfriend and I have been dating for six months. He’s wonderful to be with, treats me well, makes me laugh, etc. We have a very strong relationship and I can see this developing into something more long term, eventually leading to marriage, house, kids — the whole shebang. Until recently, he was living with his parents, but thankfully just used money he inherited from his grandfather to purchase a condo. I know that he is financially responsible and has great credit.

The only “but” is his job. He’s 33, nine years older than me, and is college-educated but has worked in a full-time equivalent position for 11 years that is paid hourly and does not provide any benefits. I am two years employed at a non-profit organization making the same amount annually that he does ($30,000) but I am employed full-time and receive benefits. Something seems not right with that.

Don’t get me wrong, he is very hard-working, passionate, and enjoys his job. I just don’t see any ambition or desire in him now to look for a better working situation that would provide him more security and a basic level of health care. My worry is that money (specifically, a lack thereof) could become a problem in our relationship as we get more serious. I know that a lot of marriages are ended due to financial troubles and I don’t want to be a statistic in that regard.

My questions for you:

Am I worrying too much about his job? How can I express my concerns without sounding overbearing? Is it worth it to stay in the relationship with him to see if he will get more serious?

This is a complicated letter. But my advice is simple. Chill the fuck out. If you can’t chill out, leave.

Yes, you’re worrying too much about his job. You’re in your twenties, you’ve got your career on track, and while your boyfriend might not be a total dynamo, he’s also doing well. He graduated college, owns his own home, and seems like the definition of dependable. Whatever his faults, he’s great enough to make you fantasize about marriage and babies. Sure, it’s bad that he doesn’t have health insurance – but that’s hardly a personal failure. Millions of working people lack such basic social protections. I’m not going to tell you they’re unmarriageable.

If you stay together long term then, sure, the time will come to talk about money. (For instance, are you going to help pay one another’s debts?) The thing is, it seems like you’re still a loooong way from reaching that stage of your relationship. And if you try to have this conversation now, it’s going to be very hard not to sound overbearing.

Bottom line: I don’t even think we’re talking about dollars and cents. You’re bothered about something more basic. You’ve been together six months and you’re getting anxious about whether this guy is going to be a match for you in ten years. You’re worried that you’re going to outgrow him. And you’re beginning to think about getting out.

I understand. It’s good to want the best for yourself. And in wanting the best for ourselves, we can even be ambitious for other people, encouraging them to reach their full potential. But when we start wanting them to be something they’re not – well, that’s another thing altogether. If you really love this dude, try to relax and judge him on his own terms, not by the artificial standards of some future self.

Enjoy your boyfriend’s passion and ability to make you laugh. The world moves fast. In another six months, he might change his job or reveal a secret bank vault full of Nazi treasure. You might run off to the Cape Verde Islands; or, you might re-read this column and say, “What was I thinking?” But if time passes and you still feel the same, then I’d say it’s time to bail. He’s probably not right for you. You’re almost certainly not right for him.

Previously: Workplace Mistakes and Greenerish Grasses.

A Married Dude is one of several rotating Married Dudes who don’t claim to know everything about marriage. Do you have a question for A Married Dude?

Photo by Andrea Slatter, via Shutterstock


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