A Marriage Made of Money

Given the choice between the flailing middle class and obscene wealth...? I think I might actually take the first. Because I remember how it felt being married to someone who had a different approach to money and a completely different set of priorities. It was profoundly lonely.
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I have little interest in Mark Zuckerberg. What he wears, whose ideas he co-opted, whether he eats only animals he has killed. I was mostly bored by The Social Network. And I resisted Facebook until someone pointed out (correctly) that I was being ridiculous: Having a social media presence today is like being listed in the telephone book in 1975.

What does interest me, however, is the story about a young couple, just 27 and 28, starting their marriage with billions of dollars in the bank. I imagine them waking up after the festivities have died down, after the honeymoon is over and the paparazzi are no longer camped out, recording their every move. They look at each other and... what? What does one DO when there's nothing to strive for or work for or save for? When there is no shared goal.

Like most Americans, I have no idea how this feels. But, perhaps unlike most Americans, I don't think I'd want to. Wealth on that level removes one of the primary things couples share: the responsibility to pool their resources and sustain their tiny cell of a household on this big, crazy, tilting Earth.


I've been married twice (actually three times, but to only two different men). And money has been a major issue in each of these unions -- as it is for most couples, I think. How we use it, how we think about it, how we talk about it. Whether and how it's shared does a lot to define the marriage in a broader sense.

My first husband came from a very close, protective upper-class family. He had never known want growing up and bizarrely he seemed to crave it. Like some W. Somerset Maugham character, he lived as a young adult always on the razor's edge: working temporary, hourly jobs and dispersing his pay immediately upon receiving it. Magazines, truck stop meals, trinkets from drugstore shelves. He would give $5 bills to panhandlers and arrive home to find me puzzling over past-due utility bills, his wallet empty.

Complicating matters were his parents. They were lovely, generous people. But moneywise, they only added to our marital rift. What they saw was their grown son, burdened too young with a wife and babies, unable to buy himself nice jeans or good, dark beer or a new truck. So these things would arrive at our house: packages and boxes -- a new set of keys, even -- for him. Meanwhile, I'd be scraping up dollars to pay for groceries. When the weekend came, there was never enough left to go out to dinner or see a play.

For a dozen years I tried to manage. But I was perpetually queasy and resentful; and this, frankly, dumbfounded him. Monitoring my husband turned me into his mother: a sure way to kill the romance (and, believe me, it did). The tack I finally settled on was to make my own money and count only on that amount.

This strategy came in handy when he left our marriage in spring of 2001. To reduce our troubles to money would be wrong. Let me say up front I was in graduate school, driven and relentless, never satisfied. I wouldn't have wanted to live with me, either, and I don't blame him a bit.

In fact, I didn't blame him back then. We remained best friends; we even re-sparked our love affair. It is a fact that the sex was way better once we were divorced.

We thought we'd found the secret to a lasting relationship. Truly. We loved each other, we had three children together. Our new plan was to live independently -- he'd have his house and his bank account, I'd have mine -- but share our lives as we'd always planned. On Sunday mornings, we would meet at a coffee shop and hold hands while we discussed each upcoming week.

The following year, I moved for a job in Rhode Island and my ex-husband went to treatment. Then a strange crime brought us back together. He flew out east on his last bit of savings and arrived on my doorstep newly sober, dead broke and ready to help. Within a month, we'd remarried at the courthouse in downtown Providence. It still kills me to remember this: Somehow, my now-second husband dredged up the money to buy me a single white rose.

It seemed so logical (just work with me here; follow my thinking): We wanted to raise our children together. We believed we'd both changed in the time we'd been apart... even if it was only a year. He was no longer drinking; I was a visiting professor. We were in a new place, far from our families. It was a whole new start.

Until, six weeks later, he told me about the debt.

It turned out my once-again-husband hadn't just spent every penny he had. He'd actually spent about $40,000 more. And because we were now married again, I was on the hook for what he owed.

We separated soon after. He disappeared and I didn't see him for another 18 months. To his credit, he found ways to deal with the money on his own. Drinking again, working odd jobs, finding a good bankruptcy attorney and eventually taking it upon himself to file for our second divorce. It took about three years but he finally worked his way out. He could never pay child support, but I understood. Simply leaving and dragging away the burden of what he owed always seemed to me like payment enough.

And I swore, when that second divorce came through, never to make the same mistake again. I would remain single, responsible for myself and my children, a financial island. This was the only way to be safe.

Then, four years later, I met someone who shares my attitudes about money. Yes, we fell in love and he wanted to help raise my children. But in addition -- and it's a very important factor -- we deal with money similarly. We're both cautious, even a little plodding: people who will forego new clothes and expensive meals in order to save for retirement and college for our now three shared kids.


It may seem that I haven't made my case about Zuckerberg. What would it have hurt if my second/third husband were wealthy? Wouldn't that have made my decision even safer?

I think not.

Oddly, though I have never had the experience myself, I wrote an entire novel about a couple whose marriage is made too easy by money. Carmen and Jobe marry quickly, despite her misgivings, and have a baby immediately because there's no reason not to. They don't need to build a base for their life together. Their "forever" marriage feels like a sentence partly because there is no shape to it. No unifying goal.

It means something to me that my husband is willing to drink $5 wine and carry his lunch to work in a bag so his stepchildren won't have to take college loans. Twice, we've scrapped together the funds to take a bare bones trip to Europe. But some of our best memories from Italy and Hungary are of nights when we ate dinners of fruit and cheese in our tiny hotel room or rode a bus with suitcases full of dirty clothes to a rickety coin laundry. We learned the Hungarian word for "thank you" from the man who gave us change and showed us how to use the ancient machines.

I believe these experiences enrich our marriage and I wonder who we'd be to each other if there were no reason to sacrifice and compromise and plan.

Of course, it's an enormous luxury to be able to "save" for plane fare to Florence. Being poor is de-humanizing and damaging on every level. Couples that don't have enough money for basic expenses face an ugly, constant pressure that threatens their relationship, their health, and their self-esteem. I never again want to live in poverty, nor do I want to imply that struggling to feed your kids is no big deal.

However, given the choice between the flailing middle class and obscene wealth...? I think I might actually take the first.

Because I remember how it felt being married to someone who had a different approach to money and a completely different set of priorities. It was profoundly lonely. Today, my husband and I have to make choices but we make them together. Finally, in this marriage, I know how it feels to have a shared sense of purpose. It's just the two of us and our tiny dreams and our paltry incomes, working together and fighting to survive in one corner of a vast and fearsome world.