There is a huge difference between my partner’s financial situation and mine. How can this be bridged? | Leading questions

I’m struggling with my relationship because there is a huge difference between my partner’s financial situation and mine. We’re both in our 50s, have been together for nearly three years and live apart. He – never married, no kids, great job – is very financially secure and has lots of spare money. I, however, as an older single parent, freelancing, some health problems, post-divorce and in a difficult economy, am absolutely skint! To the extent that I had to turn to the local food bank before Christmas, for which I was grateful but felt like such a failure.

Meanwhile, it is so galling to see my partner parading around in the (very expensive) new clothes he constantly buys and it’s upsetting that he does not offer to help out when, for example, a household appliance of mine breaks down, as happened recently. I know I have no right to expect it – his money is his, and I have always tried to be independent, but it does hurt.

We have plans to live together when my daughter goes to university. How on earth will the inequality of our situations be bridged then? If I bring it up, I feel money-grabbing and he acts hurt. If I don’t talk about it, I get more resentful as I wonder how can he sit by and watch me suffer like this? If the situations were reversed, I’d be throwing my wealth at him.

Eleanor says: Money can be so divisive in close relationships. We sometimes see it as a symbol: of independence, providing, status. And just as money itself symbolises those things, giving it to other people can also trail symbolism: resentment, taking advantage, obligation.

One way to approach this is to ask: “What’s fair?” You could litigate that forever. Of course, you might well be in the right: it might be the fair thing, or at minimum the kind thing, for him to help you out. But what’s fair and what’s kind are only worth so much if the person in front of you doesn’t agree. Do you want to have to persuade him? Do you want to be extracting compliance with norms that, to you, are obvious?

Instead of asking what’s objectively fair, it can be more helpful to ask what each of you can live with.

You asked: “How on earth the inequality will be bridged?” The answer is that it won’t be bridged, in the passive voice. You’ll have to bridge it together.

It sounds like this is getting to a breaking point for you: you don’t want to keep silently feeling like he’s “watching you suffer”. I’m sorry to bear such trite news but there really is no way out of this except a tough conversation. There’s no secret extra option where he learns how you feel and changes his preferences without a difficult talk.

Before you talk about money, it might be helpful first to get clarity about a non-financial question first: what level of “in it together” does he think your relationship should have? Does he want a shared life, and this is what that looks like? Or is he operating on a different background preference – does he think his life is his, your life is yours, and you should only come together for certain parts? This seems like an important thing to clarify. Otherwise you’ll stay simmering about why he’s not more “on your team” and he’ll feel glad you each still have your independence. You’ll be adjudicating each other against different criteria for what your relationship should look like.

When you do broach a financial arrangement together, it might be useful to focus on each other’s feelings, rather than on principles of objective fairness.

Also, if you feel self-conscious about “money-grubbing”, it might be useful to point out the ways you help him in return. Finances can make relationships feel asymmetrical. It’s worth pointing out any other asymmetries, so you don’t get stuck in a “helper”/“helpee” roles. What do you give more of to him than he gives to you? Do you listen more, cook more, help him with work, care for him when he’s sick? Any way in which you’re the helper can help reset the feeling of patronising charity.

Money symbolises so much that it can break up the strongest of relationships. The good news is that clarity can hose off a lot of those projected meanings. But only if you’re brave enough to speak about them clearly.

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