Last week my friend Heather and her new boyfriend came to stay with me in Los Angeles. On our first evening together we went out for dinner to one of my favorite local restaurants. When the bill came, Heather and I both reached for our wallets. Her boyfriend took another drink of his wine and looked away.
Heather later revealed to me that she supports her boyfriend entirely. She pays the $5,000 a month mortgage on the New York apartment, the cable bill, and buys all the food. When his wallet is empty, which is frequently, she fills it with cash. In turn, he makes her breakfast and sometimes dinner.
She confessed to me that she’s become stressed as the relationship has put a strain on her finances. While she was living comfortably providing for herself, paying for two is a challenge that comes with anxiety each time she looks at her bank statement.
She’s had conversations with her boyfriend about him pulling more weight to contribute to their monthly expenses. He tells her that he doesn’t feel badly about spending her money because he knows he’ll make money and take care of her for the rest of their lives. (This idyllic sentiment has not yet been backed up by an engagement ring or formal IOU, by the way.)
Financial disparity is often at the root of disharmony in their relationship. Besides the inconveniences of not being to travel the way she would like, there are the deeper-seeded issues of insecurity that arise when a man is dependent. Most men instinctually want to be providers and when that role is taken away from them, they’re left feeling emasculated. These men could be at high risk for cheating as they seek to reassert their dominance.
Relationships in which the traditional power structure is inverted seem doomed to failure. While men take pride in providing for a woman, women often feel a sense of shame or embarrassment if they take care of a man, that they must buy companionship. It often seems like even powerful women who want to be treated like men in the office want to come home to a man who makes them feel like a woman.
Men, for their part, resent the notion of being controlled and will eventually allow their pride to sabotage a relationship with a woman who is willing to give them the world. The recent tabloid revelations about Jennifer Lopez’s boyfriend Casper Smart exchanging messages with transsexual models demonstrate the extent of the male ego. Here’s a guy with one of the most beautiful women in the world and he throws away his jet and meal ticket due to the psychological need to subvert his girlfriend’s dominance.
I have another friend, a successful female entrepreneur, who two years ago found herself single after ending a 17-year marriage. Still beautiful and with a trainer-sculpted physique, she decided to unleash her inner cougar.
For a short period, she tried dating age-appropriate men in the same tax bracket and found them tiresome, unattractive, and manipulative. At a certain point, men come with excessive baggage, whether it be an ex-wife to whom he pays half his salary in alimony, kids, or psychological issues. Young men, besides having a rapacious sexual appetite, are more easily controlled — at least at first.
There was the 25-year-old smoothie maker / surfer she picked up in a bar and took along to dinners at SoHo House. She bought him expensive gifts and was entertaining the idea of taking him on a trip to Europe, stymied only by the fact that he did not have a passport. This union was not to last, and he ended up leaving her due to her possessiveness.
She liked being in control of their activities and agenda, and became frustrated if he didn’t drop everything to be with her. Her expectations of acceptable behavior were higher because it was consistently her platinum American Express on the table.
Still, she was undeterred and within a month had met another handsome young man working in an entry-level job at a production company. Obviously the guy was not in a position to match her lifestyle, but within the span of a couple weeks he had grown accustomed to my friend paying for everything. One day he announced that he needed a haircut. She suggested that if he wanted one, he should get one. “But I need one right now,” he whined.
She called Brad Pitt’s hairstylist to come to her home and give him a haircut. She paid the $250 bill. Later the boyfriend attempted the same tactic by complaining that he didn’t have new jeans, the implicit suggestion being that she should buy them for him.
It didn’t take long for my friend to feel used and under-appreciated, even if she was complicit in splashing out for limousines, boat rides, and lunches at the Four Seasons stemming from her desire to impress the young man. While the sex had initially been great, she found her attraction waning as she saw him more and more as a child she had to mother. She felt dirtied by the arrangement, as if she was paying for his affection and soon dumped him.
Women who have been single for a long time are more susceptible to taking in a man who contributes minimally rather than be alone. If she has achieved a measure of success where she no longer needs to prove herself, her energy is focused towards finding a companion with whom she can share her life, even if that also means her life savings.
A fundamental issue is the difference between how men and women perceive money. For women, spending money is often emotionally charged, whether it be an impulse purchase at Saks or lending money to a friend and thinking they owe them in perpetuity. If she spends money on a man — money that can be tangibly estimated in numbers of massages or vacations she could otherwise afford — there is a sense of ownership that prevails. I’m not talking about a woman buying her boyfriend dinner every once in a while, but a woman who is the sole or primary earner and subsidizes her lover. This ownership is ultimately toxic to the relationship, as it builds expectations in the woman’s mind and pushes a man further away to assert independence.
So what’s a girl to do?