Growing up, my parents never talked about finances with me. But they made two things clear: 1. Money was important, and 2. It was handled by men.
My stepfather was the one who took care of all of the finances. My mother would often say that he’d “saved us.” I had no concept of economic literacy, but it wasn’t long before I began equating men with rescuing and financial security.
Though I earned spending money through chores and part-time jobs as a teen, I never discussed earnings or expenses with my parents. If I ran out of money, I’d go to them, feeling overwhelmed—but their responses only increased my shame.
Not surprisingly, I lacked confidence about money by the time I went to college. During my sophomore year, I met a young man who came from a wealthy family. He had lofty professional aspirations and a firm grasp on economics. I wish I could say I wasn’t impressed by the labels on his shirts, the cars his family drove, or the upscale suburb in which they lived—but I was. And, I was flattered by his attention. Until then, no one who’d ever had that level of wealth had shown any interest in me.
We married right after graduation. I was grateful for his confidence with numbers, as well as his focus on hard work and structure. It felt reassuring and familiar. In quick order, he made his way toward the C-Suite, and we enjoyed a lavish lifestyle built on his enormous income. We had things most people can only dream of, including multiple boats, yacht club memberships, and vacations to tropical locales, swimming in the coral reefs of billionaires’ backyards.
We had a second, fully furnished home that often sat empty. We had gardeners, landscapers, architects, appraisers, and countless others who helped us maintain all our stuff.
Every year—every season, even—we wore the latest fashion trends, going through clothing like it was nothing.
We had savings funds, retirement funds, and “fun” funds, plus health insurance and access to the best medical care in the world. Actually, we had insurance on everything, including our many cars and boats. There was always enough money for us to pursue advanced degrees, and there were always lavish celebrations once we obtained them.
In addition, I was able to afford to launch a career as a writer, in large part because I didn’t have to worry about finances. It seemed like such a great deal on paper, which is why I often wondered why, instead of feeling happy and secure, our wealth made me feel increasingly empty.
My husband could sometimes spend as many as 18 hours a day at work, and when family and friends praised his tireless work ethic, I couldn’t help but echo their sentiments. He wants to provide a stable platform for us to start a family, I thought—a family I was increasingly eager to start.
“We need to wait until we have more savings,” he’d say. “Let’s wait one more year.”
silhouette of man in office working at desk as sun rises, married for money
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It wasn’t long into our marriage that he took over all of the financial decisions entirely. Though he’d fill me in on his choices, he made it clear that I was to follow along, however blindly. “It’s complicated,” he’d say when I insisted on learning more about the numbers. He’d been a finance major in college, he reminded me, and this was all in his wheelhouse. I’d been a communications major, and we knew numbers terrified me.
Oftentimes, I told myself he was rescuing me from my poor spending habits—that is, when he wasn’t telling me himself. My mom had been rescued, I reasoned, so there shouldn’t be shame in that, right? Still, I felt like a failure on a daily basis.
In fact, most days, I woke up feeling like a complete fraud. I never grew comfortable with being wealthy. I had zero financial literacy regarding earnings or savings. And it became increasingly clear that my definition of security was not aligned with my husband’s. Whereas he seemed to view security as “providing,” I viewed it as “intimacy.” I wanted to hold hands and feel his body by my side, but you can’t do that with a workaholic. More than money or financial freedom, I wanted my husband—but it soon became clear he was married to his career.
Unbelievably, I found myself envying my married friends who stressed and poured over their finances together, who budgeted and held each other accountable. I was jealous of how vulnerable and intimate they were with one another in ways that, to me, really mattered.
One friend who struggled financially told me about her sleepless nights with her husband, holding each other, praying their way through their debt. I never curled into my partner about these or any such things. I know he believed he was doing everything possible for us. In reality, he just wasn’t there.
Money turned us into logistics experts, operating from what felt like separate islands. We spent little to no time coexisting or enjoying each other as a couple. As the income and assets increased, so, too, did our divide. Yes, I had more money than I’d ever dreamed, but I felt emotionally bankrupt.
After seven years of marriage, my husband was finally happy enough with our financial outlook for us to start a family. We had two children and, as they grew, so did my partner’s salary—along with the amount of time he spent away from our family. I now cringe when I think of what he said to me when I cried about the kids needing more quality time with him: “We’ll have so much money when we retire,” he said. “We’ll be able to do whatever we want, and we’ll look back on this time and be glad we stuck it out.” I let myself believe him.
By the time we hit our 10-year-anniversary, we’d moved into the upper tenth of the one percent. And yet, it wasn’t long before my resentment started to grow. I’d gladly put my career on hiatus to have children and support his efforts during six years of graduate school, but I married him to be his partner, not a lonely pioneer. I was constantly apologizing for spending too much—on groceries, on clothes, on gifts we gave to others—only to watch yet another boat appear in our driveway, another expensive power tool appear in the basement, another fancy car, another case of fine wine, another racing bike.
I spent most of the budget he gave me on day-to-day needs like household supplies, education, and things for the kids, but he often described my choices as “extravagant” or “irresponsible.” I could feel his frustration every time he looked at our bills, sighed, and said, “We need to have a serious talk.” But it was never productive or collaborative—never the kind of talk I needed or hoped it would be.
Several times I said I’d finally had enough, that I felt disrespected when he refused to talk about finances or meet with me and the accountant. And just as I’d reach the point of no return, he’d book another $20,000 vacation in an attempt to assuage me. Then, the dysfunctional cycle of shame would start again before our tans even faded.
sad woman’s hands clenched as she plays with wedding ring, married for money
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Eventually, my confusion turned to bitterness and anger when I recognized his constant shaming for what it was: control. I may not have been wise to his ways of saving and spending, but I wanted to try to understand it. My efforts to encourage counseling and joint meetings with our financial advisors were dismissed. I realized my marriage was not built on love or commitment, but rather on dollars and status.
I know now that he’d taken over where my stepdad left off, managing all the money and leaving my financial muscle fixed in the same, stunted, three-step exercise for decades:
Spend and exist until the next “come to Jesus” talk with the man in charge.
Experience profound shame after being told to spend “smarter” (or less) without a roadmap or discussion.
Accept the man’s forgiveness, then start the cycle over.
One day, I was talking to my sister, who’d built a private medical practice but still lived paycheck to paycheck. Suddenly, she said to me, “You’re the most down-to-earth rich person I’ve ever met.” I was taken aback. Even after all these years, I still didn’t consider myself “rich,” because I didn’t have a good relationship with money. It made me so uncomfortable and ashamed. It was then that it all finally registered: I didn’t want this life.
After 20 years of marriage, my husband and I finally got divorced. At one point, I asked him why he thought things hadn’t worked out. “I probably should have left around year 10,” he said, “but I stayed for the kids.” In hindsight, I should have left earlier, too. I’d told myself I had to stay, for better or worse, and couldn’t let myself see just how bad it really was.
We’d depended on money to make us happy, and in the end, it’s what finally tore us apart.
I now know that while wealth might ensure a secure and comfortable lifestyle, it can never guarantee the things that really matter: respect, intimacy, healthy communication, and true love. Money can’t address old wounds or untangle past hurts. And, as the old saying goes, it won’t keep you warm at night. Believe me, I know.