The "Downton Abbey" craze has made me think about how money plays into our romantic choices today. (If you've managed to avoid this compulsive cross of "Upstairs, Downstairs" and "Dallas," the latest TV hit is about how the daughters of a threatened estate will marry—they're in need of cash.)
Since women now have the chance to work in higher-paid jobs (although salaries and opportunities are still not equal), we're not supposed to be lusting for a man with a fortune as in "Pride & Prejudice."
But is it ever that simple? Every relationship includes some ambivalence, if we are honest about who we each are, and every relationship is an exchange of resources.
My richest boyfriend so far was an equity tax partner in a law firm who was making a couple million a year.
At the time I had a good job, with a healthy 401K and generous benefits, and I owned an apartment. I didn't need a rich man to save me. But he offered me an entirely different style of life—and I loved it. Fine dining was ecstatic; I gloried in every bite of my lobster butternut squash risotto or Kobe steak. I could go to any hit show I wanted and sit in my ideal seat. Ballet, opera.... all within reach.
My fantasies alone in my bed ran along these lines: If I married this man, my bullying boss wouldn't have the same power over me. I could quit. If I married this man, I'd write another novel and salt it with references to my luxurious life and get published. I could buy art. I could give money to my causes.
Oh yeah, I'd also get to spend my life with him.
We loved each other as well as any two people could in two intense months. We shared values—like many rich New York City lawyers, he was a liberal Democrat who spent hours on the boards of non-profits. We respected each other's brains and accomplishments. And although I wasn’t in need, I did have the usual middle-class worry about how I and any future husband would manage to send kids to college, care for elderly parents and pay our medical bills in our 90s.
It didn’t quite seem possible unless my husband was… rich. That was a big plus.
In our case, it wasn't the difference in our assets that broke us up, but in our attitudes about money.
I asked him if he had a stamp so I could mail in my rent before we left. He said, "Stamps? I have secretaries for that." In the elevator, when one of his neighbors joined us and saw our luggage, my date told him we were planning four days "away." The man stared at me and said, "Play your cards right; you could do worse!"
Did I have "gold digger" written on my forehead? I laughed it off, but I noticed that my honey didn't seem to think the remark was strange or rude.
A day later, as the afternoon sun poured into our grand hotel room, he told me it was "tacky" to leave my bathing suit out to dry on the balcony. "Didn't you bring another suit?" he asked. I hadn't. "So buy one in the lobby," he answered. "You really need me to go down to the lobby to shop for a suit right now?" I asked. We'd been out all morning; I had expected some time with him alone in our room before dinner. He said, "I wish you would."
I didn't play my cards right and we broke up on that trip.
I've sometimes wondered if I would have played my cards more carefully if I had been in a rough money spot. Yes, he was wasteful, showing off and a bit of a snob. He was a good person nonetheless, not on balance any worse than any other person I've known.
I also now realize that I picked on our differences in part because I was determined not to be a gold digger. This, too, was a form of pride... and also prejudice.
When dating, we run into the accumulated consequences of our choices in career, saving and spending. A broke artist might match well with a well-heeled entrepreneur: both believe in taking risks to pursue dreams.
But if their relationship is a little shaky, if the entrepreneur is more in love than the artist, he might worry about her motives. She might worry about her motives, too—she knows she'd be happier if she didn't have to worry so much about money, and that he offers her an easier, more secure life than she'd have if she joined forces with another broke artsy type.
And no one wants to think that she's a gold digger.
We all want to be taken care of in some way. For one person, money is key and can be found in a union; for the other partner, it may be the priceless benefit of a happy disposition. The lawyer had previously spent years with a woman who was naturally upbeat. "She kept me happy," he said, so he didn't mind paying all the bills, even though he wasn't ever sure she really loved him.
Be honest with yourself about how money plays into your choice of a mate, but in my opinion, it's not fatal if money is part of the draw.
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