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April 18, 2012

Love and Money

Modern love can be summed up in one quick status update: It's complicated. In the second of a three-part series, we explore the role money plays in relationships. For more insight, read five writers’ essays on love and race.

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It's undeniable. But can you still be a feminist if you want a man to pick up the check? - By Starlee Kine

Until recently, I had always been drawn to creative types: writers, artists, filmmakers. Or put another way: guys who didn't make much money. I wasn't trying to be noble. Men with money seemed cocky and out of touch, not that I had much concrete evidence to base this on. I felt more comfortable with boys whose closets were full of thrift-store T-shirts and flannels, who would spend weekends collaborating with me on creative projects. When we ate out, we'd go Dutch or, if I was making more money—which, pre-recession, I usually was—I'd pick up the check. And that was part of the allure, this feeling that I was doing so well that I could take care of a guy if I wanted to.

Then, one night at a bar, a man named Kevin offered to buy me a drink. I knew who he was because his first book had been a best seller turned huge Hollywood movie. He might as well have had a dollar sign floating above his head; he oozed the confidence of someone who didn't have to worry about money. He was also super-intense, a little crazy-eyed, sweaty, and didn't make me laugh. And yet, when he asked me to dinner, I found myself strangely unable to say no. I was enthralled by the power he radiated. But it wasn't because of his fame; I've met plenty of well-known authors. It was the rich part.

We met for dinner at a cozy restaurant filled with well-dressed, well-groomed, upwardly mobile diners. We ordered lamb shanks and risotto, along with salads and appetizers. Instead of one glass of wine at a time, he ordered a bottle and then, later on, another. It felt like that scene in the movie Victor Victoria when a starving Julie Andrews tells Robert Preston to order whatever he wants at a fancy restaurant because she has a cockroach in her purse that she plans on planting in her salad to avoid paying the check. Except, instead of a cockroach, my date had actual cash in his wallet, along with a bunch of credit cards that he wasn't likely dodging collection calls about.

I don't remember our conversation. Serious, intense, unfunny things were said, I'm sure. However, something felt different. Without the strain of having to worry about the cost of dinner (a constant concern in my previous relationships), everything felt ... lighter. As Kevin quickly slid his credit card into the leather holder, I had an awakening: I realized that I didn't feel the slightest bit of guilt or the need to offer or insist on paying for my half. And when he asked me out a second time, I immediately said yes.

The next morning, I sent this e-mail to a friend:

"He is a burly, successful author who pays for dinner, and normally I go for angsty skinny boys. I am so confused."

My friend wrote back and asked me if I liked his personality. I didn't know how to respond to that question. For the first time ever, the idea of making decisions based on personality seemed silly.

After our third date, Kevin dropped off without warning. But the experience left an imprint. I couldn't stop thinking about whenever I'd introduce my dad to one of my artsy boyfriends, how confused he would look. My father had always stressed to me the importance of financial stability—in my love life or otherwise. And for the first time, suddenly, his words were making sense.

The truth is, there's a conflict that most of my female friends and I feel about being expected to—and truly wanting to—succeed at work without having to rely on a man, but then when it comes to dating, we're supposed to regress into princesses. These presumptions don't just come from some men, they come from women as well. But often, we also want it both ways. I have one friend, a successful TV writer, who says she's just waiting to get married so she can become what she has always really wanted to be: a housewife.

This is hard to admit because I'm a feminist, and I value my career. But there is a small part of me that also wants to be taken care of, to be treated like a princess—at the very least, to have my dinner paid for. I've seen some in my own circle go after wealthy guys they wouldn't otherwise date. My friends and I even have a term for it: The Hannah Plan, based on a girl we knew who quit a lucrative job to marry a rich guy and launch her writing career. We'd reference it when discussing our own careers: "Well, there's always The Hannah Plan to fall back on." As far as we could see, The Hannah Plan was working. Hannah and her husband seemed happy, and she was becoming more accomplished on her own (with his backing) than when she had a job. But I'd always shake my head, cross my arms, insist that it ultimately wasn't the route women should take. Well, that was before the dinner with Kevin, when I realized that all it took was one perfectly cooked risotto for me to turn from Sophia to Anna Nicole Smith, at least for one date.

Ultimately, I don't think I could commit to The Hannah Plan long-term. Having dinner paid for is one thing; marrying for money is something else entirely. And again, I'm not being noble. I just don't think I'd be able to pull it off. Which isn't to say that returning to those scrappy boys has been easy. I recently went on a date with one, at a place in Brooklyn that had $12 specials. When the check came, he put his card down, then slid the bill over to me. I heard myself saying, "That's a turnoff," and then suddenly we were having a fight. He found it a turnoff that I found it a turnoff. He accused me of displaying a sort of reverse sexism. I didn't know how to respond because I was as confused about my feelings as he was. I just knew that they felt real and important and that trying to resolve and come to peace with this conflict felt more intrinsic to my being a modern woman than simply accepting a split bill.

Finally, with a sigh, he told me not to worry about it and paid for the meal. We pulled on our coats in silence. Moments before we had been cracking jokes about the couple next to us who clearly hated each other, and now they were probably doing the same thing about us. Maybe we would be the example against which they would reconcile: "Now those two have issues ..." We'd been planning on continuing the date, but instead, outside, we offered up stiff hugs, and then turned in opposite directions.

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