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April 18, 2012

Love and Money

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Photo Credit: Getty Images

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THE 50-50 RULE
How a teenage relationship shaped a woman's attitude toward her finances forever - By Susan Gregory Thomas

It was my senior year of high school, and my friends were all applying to prestigious liberal-arts colleges. I had nowhere to live. A team of intervening family therapists had deemed my mother's and my living together untenable. My father, who had flown down to the Philadelphia suburbs from Boston, ostensibly to rescue me, instead dropped me off at a halfway house a few miles away from my mom's apartment. He wished me luck and took the next plane home.

Luckily, I had a boyfriend. And he had an amazing family.

He came from what in Wasp circles is known as "an old family," people whose fortunes were made so long ago that money was not, to them, tangible currency so much as images of lawyers in white-shoe law firms handling trust funds. Like many old families, they were great benefactors: of the arts, of centers for abused women, of colleges and universities. And of me.

Rick, as I'll call him, and his family were horrified at my situation and took me in with no parameters. They made up one of their guest bedrooms and urged me to decorate it as my own. I became part of the family dinners and parties, at which I was introduced as Rick's "dear friend." When it came time for the female members of the family to be presented to society as debutantes, they outfitted me in appropriate gowns and elbow-length kid gloves. They paid for Rick and me to go to bed-and-breakfast weekend retreats in the country.

When my own father reneged on my parents' divorce agreement and refused to send me to college (though he had more than enough money), Rick's parents furnished an apartment we'd found in nearby Philadelphia, where Rick and I lived while attending Temple University, a good and affordable local school. They had saved my life. And in spite of my fulsome thanks and promises, they never, ever made me feel ashamed or obligated to repay them in any way.

But the undercurrents of the debt slowly swelled to riptides. I, for example, had to get a job—which I did, as a reporter—to pay for college, rent, and school supplies. And though I was no legal expert, I knew enough to be certain that my father's failure to foot the bill for my tuition put him in breach of contract. I was saving money to hire a lawyer to sue him so that I could attend the college of my choice, Columbia. I worked overtime.

Rick didn't have to work. He didn't like that I did. I wasn't at home when he wanted me to be, and when I was there, I was studying to produce a perfect GPA. I was not-so-subtly urged to quit my job. His parents would help us again. But I couldn't allow his family to pay my freight: I needed to do it. So, against his discouragement, I persisted—and declined help.

But the trouble escalated. If there was a function Rick was obliged to attend and I couldn't make it because of work or school or both, he would be furious and slam the door on his way out—or, on many occasions, browbeat me into shirking my duties. If he wanted me in bed—to sleep, to talk, to cuddle, or beyond—I felt bound to comply. I met new friends at school and on the job. Rick didn't like them—and didn't like my hanging out with them. Such episodes led to fights, which, ultimately, led to the blunt truth: His family had done everything for me; I owed him. He didn't have to say it. It was unmistakable.

I envisioned following the path that was being laid for me: marrying young, producing 2.3 children, volunteering at their prep schools, assuming a role in the Junior League. And transforming into a pretentious, resentful soul in a Lilly Pulitzer frock.

Four months after we had moved in together, on New Year's Eve, I was alone after a particularly vicious fight about my not being able to afford a night of pricey debauchery. I snapped. I couldn't bear the thought of a life that resembled the one I was living. I moved out and moved in with my mom (time apart had led to forgiveness on both our parts) until I could find a roommate to share a cheap apartment. I spent the next year saving money for the lawyer, sued my dad, settled, and went to Columbia. I worked my ass off, won the English department's award for critical writing, landed a job at a magazine—and paid my way for all of it.

At my first job out of college, I met the man who would be my husband, and he told me he was thinking of quitting the magazine for which we both worked and taking an adventure through Central and South America. When I asked who was going to fund this excursion, he replied: "My parents." Not on my watch, I said—and went on to lecture him about the importance of self-sufficiency, shoving at him my dog-eared copy of The Sheltering Sky to underscore the demise of entitled wanderers. Within a week, he came around.

In our 16 years together, we always split everything 50/50. I was obsessively self-reliant, leaving New York—and him—for two years because I was determined to write for The Washington Post, even living in a group house to keep my expenses low. When I decided I was done with D.C., I refused to return until I'd lined up a job in NYC, not willing to lean on his earnings for a second. I always maintained my own bank account; we divided bills down the middle. After the births of our two children, he kindly offered to support my staying home to care for the babies, a proposition that many of my friends took their husbands up on. I couldn't. Instead, I scrambled for freelance work and, when that didn't pay enough, garnered a book deal so that I could be both a working and a stay-at-home mom, sleep and reliance be damned.

In hindsight, it's obvious that some twisted, unconscious psychosexual calculus had been burned into my thinking—that allowing myself to be supported, even by my husband, somehow would make me a kept woman. That if I had none of my own money, I would have no voice, no rights. It's no way to look at marriage, and again, looking back on it, obstinacy could well have played a role in its eventual dissolution. To avoid making my husband my sugar daddy, it's as though I regarded him as my roommate rather than my partner.

That was eight years ago. We have since divorced, and I remarried an antiques restorer whose work evaporated during the recession. I have come to know poverty, the disgrace of qualifying for food stamps and of having the heat turned off because we couldn't pay the bills. Though I could have pushed for it, I never asked for child support from my former husband because he was paying a large part of our children's school tuition. Moreover, he didn't offer because it never would have occurred to him: We split everything, together or not. I'd set it up that way, the corrosive effects of financial dependence on a man having been indelibly imprinted on my DNA a lifetime ago.

I have now been the primary breadwinner for four years, albeit not a great one, and I am definitely enthusiastic—indeed, rabid!—about my husband earning a steady income. But I have learned how to be grateful for his help and that from my parents and in-laws. I'm also grateful for my experiences with my rich boyfriend, my ex-husband, even my father: They taught me how to be a scrapper, to deploy inner resources I didn't even know existed, to get to the other side of hardship. I'm there now, and as harrowing as it has been, I have learned that being a lone pilot is just as damaging as being a helpless charity case. I see now that I am part of a team.


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