Love, Self

Love, Money & Commitment: The Life Of An Un-Wife

unmarried money love

A marriage may or may not be a union of love. It is always a union of property. No matter how you conduct your affairs—joint or separate checking accounts; rooms, even homes, of your own—the state regards you as a unit. The day you sign the license, you and your spouse are taxed as one. And if you break up, you become half of one: it divides your wealth in two. Prenuptial agreements can prevent the foregoing, but prenups are not always enforced (and they never supersede child-support laws). Anyway, lots of people find prenups distasteful. Marriage, they feel, is about love, not property.

Paul and I have been together for 17 years. Neither of us has ever been married, and we don't intend to marry each other. There are no practical reasons to do so—no kids (unless you count our elderly diabetic cat, Julius), no employer-paid health insurance—and several tax-related reasons not to.

The reasons we've resisted marriage differ. Paul's are fairly straightforward. Periodically, he's looked around at married couples and found them no happier or more committed than unmarried couples. My own reasons are more ideological, but the ideology has a burning strain of emotion. An old-fashioned anarchist-feminist, I despise the idea of the state legitimizing my personal or sexual liaisons. I'd like the state to get out of the sexual-licensing business altogether, actually, for couples gay, straight, bi, or none of the above. But as long as all of the above can't take advantage of the institution, I won't either.

I don't want to oversimplify marriage or romanticize living together. The former isn't a static or mindless category of the unexamined life; the latter isn't a full-time orgy of keeping love alive. But marriage, to me, offers a ready-made commitment I'd rather go without. I prefer having to make the choice to be, or not to be, with the person I am involved with, to remember, without the aid of a gold band or the vision of dueling divorce lawyers, why I am with that person.

Mainly, though, my aversion to marriage is about love and property. Marriage creates a kind of human property. Women may no longer be chattel; in spite of ongoing wage inequality, most wives are neither their husbands' emotional slaves nor their economic dependents (thanks to feminism). Still, marriage implies ownership: each spouse owns the other. I have never craved an identity or a relationship that can be named only in the possessive: "my husband, my wife."

As for material property, I'm uninterested in forming a limited-partner corporation in bride's and groom's clothing. And just as I don't want the state blessing my union, I'd like to avoid it dividing the spoils should that union fail. A love relationship between unmarried people who live together is not legally a partnership of property, and that's how I like it. I think of myself as one of the least romantic people on earth. But just like those romantics at the altar, I don't want to mix love and money.

And yet, money is rarely far from any consequential personal pairing—not just between boss and worker or landlord and tenant, but between parent and child, friends or lovers. Relationships are enacted through talk and touch; they are deepened by shared experiences. But, like civilizations since the beginning of time, they are also sustained through the exchange of goods and services, credit and cash, often held out as gifts or punishment. When a parent wants to show her disapproval, she may deny a child a toy or treat. When a lover wants to show affection, he may take his partner to her favorite restaurant. In the first case a feeling is demonstrated by not spending money, in the latter by spending it.

People in relationships not only give and receive (or withhold) items bought with money, they also buy and use items together. Married or not, the longer two people share a life, the more central to that life property becomes. Stuff, like a couple, merges.

Paul and I met in 1991. Like any new couple, we each paid our way. It was simple. We each had a car and a home with a mortgage, taxes, and maintenance to support. When we bought groceries to cook together, when we ate out or went to the movies, we split the cost down the middle. Since we earned about the same amount—he as a nonprofit political and energy consultant, I as a writer and editor—what was simple was also fair. And since neither of us earns a lot and our incomes fluctuate from year to year, our consumption styles were also compatible. We both have learned to keep the overhead low, the financial view long, and the gratification delayed.

These facts were additionally important for us, even at the start. We were both thirty-nine, living in two states—I in an apartment in Brooklyn, New York, he in a house in northeastern Vermont—so whenever we were together, we were living together. Those periods together got longer fast. The first year I spent the whole summer in Vermont; soon I was spending a couple of months in the winter there, too, and Paul was coming to New York often. In both places we work at home, so when we are together, we are rarely apart.

With so much proximity, our stuff began to merge. The little things were the first to do so. For instance, I had six green-and-yellow 1950s highball glasses. One by one they broke, until there were two. One afternoon, browsing a crockery store, we came upon some jaunty tall polka-dot glasses on sale. We picked up four, one of us paid with plastic and wrote the sum in our cookie-jar tally. When we settled up, the cost of the glasses was added in along with bread and rice and movie tickets. Now, many years later, we have six tall glasses. Do the green-and-yellow ones still belong to me? Or were they grandfathered in under unspoken joint-property bylaws?

Our books, CDs, dishes, linens, tools, plants, and furniture mingled too. Some of the books are obviously his (anything about electricity or Vermont politics); some are clearly mine (anything about feminism). But what about the bird guides, the Thai and Jewish cookbooks? To whom did the Beatles' White Album CD belong? Who paid for the tablecloth in Lisbon? Who can remember?

Business expenses started bundling: pens and envelopes, a cell phone contract, a DSL line. Each purchase requires calculation. Is it practical (is this expense best kept separate, for accounting purposes)? Is it fair (will s/he use the cell phone much more than I do)? Each asks for a measure of generosity (so what if he uses the cell phone more than I do? I use more envelopes). Each needs to trust that the other will not overspend his or her share.

But a hundred-pack of envelopes is not going to break the budget for either of us, even if the other person ends up using ninety-nine envelopes. It was not until my car died, then, that generosity and trust truly were tested. My eleven-year-old Volkwagen Golf, with 166,000 miles on it, broke irreparably. As it happens, I was broke too. I considered borrowing money for a new car but was already almost eight thousand dollars in debt. Paul had money in the bank. He offered to buy the car. We found a four-year-old Honda Civic in good shape, for sixty-five hundred dollars. I put in a thousand dollars. He picked up the rest.

This decision wasn't automatic. Paul had to think about making the offer, and I had to think about accepting it. Would there be a quid pro quo? Would I feel perpetually guilty or he resentful if I never got around to returning the favor? We couldn't be sure. Still, talking about the car gave us an opportunity to talk about money, which we had rarely done. Paul knew I worried about money, but until that moment I don't think he was aware of how alone I felt, or how often I panicked. We were in this together, he reassured me; he would not let me go under. Now here was concrete proof.

The car meant more to me than it might have if we were married, because it was a gift, not an obligation. But it did not signal that everything would change. Paul wouldn't let me go under, but neither was he indicating that I could blithely dive in over my head and expect him to save me from drowning every time. I felt relieved but not rescued, grateful but not complacent.

A year later, I bought an apartment, and my lawyer suggested I write a will. Just doing so, he said, was a chance to think about what and whom I cared about, in the form of where I wanted my property to end up. I gave a few pieces of art and furniture to friends and set aside some cash for my niece and nephew, as well as several political causes I feel passionate about. The rest of my money and the apartment—my only real and valuable property—I left to Paul. Eventually, Paul wrote a will too, leaving his house, land, and cash to me.

We had not vowed to stay together until death us do part (in fact, we had only been together seven years when I bought my apartment). Yet our wills were testament to that expectation. Paradoxically, it was an extended experiment in not consuming that revealed a lot about Paul's and my relationship to money and to each other through money. In 2004, we purchased nothing but necessities (basic groceries, insulin for Julius the cat, Internet access, toilet paper) and eschewed the rest (new clothes, books, CDs, restaurant meals, theater tickets, travel). I kept track, meditated on the meanings, both personal and political, of the consumer culture, and wrote about it. I wondered, could a person get off the wheel of getting and spending, even if she wanted to? Could she have not just a job, but a social, cultural, or family life, even an identity without buying? If the answer was no, where could solutions be found to the huge global economic and social problems wrought by overconsumption?

One thing I figured out right away was that I wanted no part of an anticonsumerist movement that encouraged, even unwittingly, a feeling of righteous superiority in its adherents or mobilized conversion to its tenets through guilt. How could we cut back in our household without moral competition or shame?

I had the feeling Paul would be better at abstention than I. He is temperamentally a nonshopper. A rural boy from a penurious family, he'd rather spend a day a month retwisting and soldering the coils of an ancient toaster than purchase a new one with micromanaged darkness scales and bagel-size slots. Paul can go a year without a movie. He has been known to darn his socks. As for me, while I think of myself as a desultory and uncommitted consumer at best, I do love my stuff. I don't own a dishwasher, riding mower, or microwave oven, and I have just one thirteen-inch television; in 2004 I didn't have a cell phone. Yet I think nothing of forking over ten bucks to view any obscure French avant-garde feminist film that passes through New York or fifteen dollars for an hour and a quarter of yoga instruction, half of which time I do little more than breathe. I buy the no-name tampons, yet I unswervingly maintain that the two hundred milligrams of pure ibuprofen in an Advil capsule cures my headache faster than a two-hundred-milligram capsule of pure ibuprofen in the bottle labeled "Ibuprofen," which costs half as much. In my pantry, I have three kinds of salt.

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I started out the year with a sense of inferiority. Paul was already better at earning and managing money than I. I already worried more about earning and spending than he did. I was worried that now I'd be worse at not spending too.

In spite of his selective consumer fetishes, including a devotion to fine spirits that led to the startling (and, to me, comforting) admission that he was willing to spend sixty dollars on a bottle of good Scotch, Paul did sail pretty effortlessly through the year. Besides wine and beer (which he started brewing at home), he missed not much more than Q-tips. I missed a few things—movies and ice cream, for instance—but to my surprise, I missed participation in the whole consumer culture. My identity was staked on being in the know—seeing the new movies, reading the new books. My social life was conducted, more than I'd realized, in cafés and bars. And though I had never in my life gone shopping for entertainment, I found I missed the act of buying things. Even the small amount of shopping that I do provides a goal for a walk in the neighborhood; it supplies a little thrill in hunting down the perfect thing, a pleasant social connection as money and chat are exchanged with the merchant, and a happy satisfaction in bringing the thing home, admiring it, and putting it away.

So, eight months into the year, I lapsed. In town on a hot afternoon with a half hour on my hands, I strolled into a clothing store. What seduced me was not just an elegant yet comfortable pair of green pants, but a skilled and sexy saleswoman. We flirted, she, I, and the beckoning item of clothing. Then I abandoned hope of restraint and bought the pants.

Meeting up with Paul afterward, I confessed. "It was an impulse buy," I said. (This was a lie; I committed the crime with malice aforethought.)

He did not scold, he did not gloat. Rather, he paused and thought. "You know, I've been in therapy ten years trying to be more impulsive," he said. Again, I'd had him wrong. He had no interest in judging me. Indeed, he judged himself: for him, constant holding back was a problem, not a source of pride.

We emerged from the year feeling more secure about the future, realizing how happily we could live on very little. I did not worry about money all year. Neither of us was shocked or repelled by the other's needs or desires. And though the project was largely about the use (or not) of money, we did not once fight about or even discuss it.

On January 1, 2005, I rented six movies and binge-watched them (Paul fell asleep during half of them). He rushed out for a box of Q-tips. When we returned to the city from Vermont, we went directly to Zaytoon's, our favorite neighborhood restaurant, where we shared a falafel plate with baba ghanoush, salad, and hot, freshly made pita.

Adding to the satisfaction, we washed it down with Paul's home-brewed amber ale—and ran into a couple of friends we hadn't seen in months. The tab came to seven dollars plus tax and tip. Delectable, healthy food at great value, beautiful waitresses, a welcome-back atmosphere even for first-time patrons: Zaytoon's offers sensual pleasures and a sense of community and lets us support the local economy, to boot. Was the meal a necessity or a luxury? Neither. It came to our table, redolent and tempting, at the meeting place of the two. It was also where Paul's and my desires and values meet.

The year did not resolve every issue of love and money. Indeed, just before we embarked on scaling down, we had launched a project of scaling up—an addition and major renovation to our Vermont house. Nonconsumption had temporarily wiped money off the agenda. The project put it back on, big-time.

The renovation would finally transform a one-man house to a home and workplace for two or more. No longer would Paul's office dominate the corner of our bedroom, its boxes and papers threatening to devour the entire space. No longer would I work at a desk in the downstairs hallway, impeding passage between kitchen and living room and subjecting my concentration to disturbances by any visitor or conversation in the rest of the house. Our guests would have a room of their own, and no more nights on a lumpy foldout couch. And the cellar would cease to flood.

But eating Sheetrock dust for months or (in our case) years, watching the bills mount, arguing over whether the cabinet doors should be made of pine or plywood, or a million other details—in the best of circumstances, home improvement is a notorious home wrecker. Marriages founder when homes are under renovation, as partners recognize that their desires and needs (or their tolerance for mess and inconvenience) don't mesh. The same is true for unmarriages like Paul's and mine. What's more, for people who live together but do not share a bank account, big expensive projects also bring up questions that casual financial arrangements can't address.

The house was Paul's—his investment, his equity; its small mortgage was nearly paid off. So he priced the hired-out parts of the job and estimated material costs, time, and other labor, most of which he planned to do himself. He figured it would take one year, two at most. Then he calculated the size of a refinanced mortgage.

But the demands of Paul's paying job got in the way of the unpaid labor of the renovation. As the second summer ended with less than half the work finished, I started feeling like a prisoner in a construction site surrounded by a moat of mud. I felt misled. I took to having temper tantrums, alternately declaring my regrets that we'd ever started and nagging Paul to get someone in to finish it. But it was Paul's money. Without consulting me, he had decided how much to spend on hired labor.

I offered to pay a carpenter. Paul resisted. Without his oversight, he felt, the job would be shoddy. I was at his mercy. But he was also at mine, he pointed out, because just as the craftsmanship had to meet his Olympian standards, the aesthetics had to live up to mine; that meant extensive consideration, reconsideration, and debate.

By the third year, I was frantic. "We'll have a gorgeous house, and then we'll break up," I predicted during one teary fight. He agreed that the tension was getting to be too much.

He hired Joe the carpenter, and I contributed to his pay. Often, Paul and Joe worked together; sometimes Joe worked alone. Some of the work was not perfect, but most of it was fine and some of it excellent. By the end of the fourth summer, everything but the back porch and the bathrooms was finished.

That fourth year, too, the "feminine" part of the job—my part—began. I shopped for paint and fabric and picture frames; I put the charges on my credit card. The loan was exhausted anyway, and Paul was drawing on savings. So we split more of the costs. For years, as I spent more and more time in Vermont, I had been putting my stamp on the house and land. When I wanted a perennial garden, Paul and a friend dug a long bed around a rock ledge. From then on, the flower garden was mine to tend, and to finance. I drove Paul's old Chevy pickup to auctions and lugged home a funky table here, a jelly cabinet or antique vase there, on my dime. Now we jointly bought a bed, a sofa, and a rug, at a total of more than five thousand dollars.

After much arguing and compromising, we both adore the house. And, though it is still in Paul's name, it is our home. Emotionally and financially we are in deep—together.

A good friend of mine—I'll call him Mike—just broke up with his girlfriend, "Jenny." At the start of their relationship, Mike had moved into Jenny's New York co-op, which she'd bought ten years earlier. They lived together for ten years, during which time he paid half the mortgage and did work on the place, sharing the cost of materials and new appliances. The apartment's value increased enormously, in part because of the improvements Mike made, in part because of the astronomical rises in New York real estate. Although it was never formalized legally, Mike and Jenny planned to retire together by selling the apartment and moving to a cheaper place out of the city.

But then things soured between Mike and Jenny. She felt their problems could be repaired; he did not and ended up leaving her.

Mike believes it's only fair that Jenny repay him for his contribution to the apartment, in which she has gained equity. He has always known her to be an honest and upright person, and there was talk of settling up when they first considered splitting. But Jenny has made no move to pay Mike. Maybe she is getting back at him, with the only weapon she has. Maybe she feels that her financial injustice equals his emotional injustice.

These days, divorce courts rarely calculate the dollar value of pain. In divorce, the judge splits the joint wealth down the middle. If there are children, the judge looks at the income, earning potential, and expenses of each parent, then calibrates child support.

What if the stresses and disappointments of the coupled life threatened to overwhelm Paul's and my love? What would hold us together? We have no kids. While we'd forfeit some of the comfort we now enjoy, both of us would be able to support ourselves, as we did before we met. We have 17 years' history together, and that is nothing to sneeze at—but we also, I hope, have decades ahead of us.

A set of glasses, a sofa, a rug, even a house cannot prevent the alienation of two people from each other. Still, I'd be lying were I to claim that property has nothing to do with why, and how, we stay together. The house is more than a building. It is a monument to our mutual struggles and pleasures, our fears and our security. In the hard-fought shape and size of its rooms and hallways, the lovingly chosen colors of its walls, the books and photos on its shelves, our names are engraved on the house, side by side, and forever will be.

We are still working it out, this tricky interaction of love and money. Paul has suggested a joint checking account, which he sees as a way to further our unity. I see it as a means of surveillance and a potential source of bickering. How much independence is healthy? What abets commitment, what undermines it?

Having finished my fourth book, I am reassessing my career. I'd like to take more time to learn new media, collaborate on creative projects, read and think—activities that are not likely to earn money. Would Paul support me, even for a few months? Should I do all the housework as compensation? Would he expect that from me—or secretly hope that I'll return the favor in the future? What if I can never afford to?

When Paul bought me the car, I felt saved but not entirely safe, like family but not quite. Maybe that's a good thing—better than assuming a future that is by no means guaranteed. After all, parents do not always bail out their children, adult children do not always take care of their aged parents. Divorced women often end up poor. How much security is reasonable to expect?

The questions are the same as they were in the first years of our life together. What is practical? What is fair? And they are different. Should Paul and I aim for perfect financial equality? Or does that quest betray—or even encourage— the suspicion that one is putting in more than her share and the other taking advantage?

It is still not easy to answer these questions or even, after fifteen years, to talk about them, because for Paul and me, as for most of us, money has a childhood history; it represents identity, status, independence, security, and—when exchanged or shared between intimates—love.

We will probably never finish working it out. In the meantime, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, we are pulling tighter the knot we never legally tied.

Reprinted with permission from Riverhead Books. To buy One Big Happy Family, click here.

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