I mentioned last week that for some people, entwining finances is less a matter of choice than of necessity. That necessity comes at a cost—the cost of autonomy and the risk someone having power over you.
The Power of Cash
A few days ago, I saw someone comment that they were solo poly because they’d rather struggle to raise their kids on their own with barely enough money to get by, then move in with any partner(s) knowing they could be homeless in an instant if they get kicked out. That this happens, often, is not addressed in general polyam discourse or discussions about money and relationships.
I’ve talked before about social hierarchy in relationships. Well, money can be a huge factor in that hierarchy. (Again, I am not talking about primary/secondary type hierarchy. I’m talking about the social status hierarchy that humans have because we are social animals. It’s a thing.)
In relationships with a large financial disparity—particularly situations where one or more people are financially dependent on their relationship partners, money gives power.
Many people would never use their income to take advantage of others. But in the US (with its almost complete lack of social safety net), you don’t need to take advantage of it. You get the advantage. And social safety nets are not perfect—even in places with a good social safety net, you can have an advantage.
Last year, my girlfriend and Michael and I were talking about her moving out here and all of us moving in together. It’s still an option, though I believe C prefers to move out of the country entirely. But one thing that came up was the huge difference in our incomes. Michael and I together make barely $10,000 a year. C makes multiples of that. In order for us to get a place large enough to live all together, the rent and most utilities and other “costs of living” would be firmly on C.
Now, Michael and I have two kids under 10 years old. Think about this: what do you think we would do to keep C happy if the alternative was being homeless again? Do you think we would let her have her way in a disagreement about how the apartment is set up? That we would avoid talking about things that upset her? That we would change our behavior in ways we didn’t like?
You bet your ass we would.
C would never hold it over our heads, “do it my way or else.” She’s not that kind of person. But if Michael or I started seeing signs that she was unhappy with the living situation or our relationships, we would bend over backward to keep her happy.
And if we felt C wasn’t willing to listen and understand why her having money gave her this advantage, C would never know it. (Since C is someone we can talk about this kind of thing, we DID discuss it, explicitly, even while the idea of moving in together was only a hypothetical.)
In the long term, of course, this would be a disaster. Either we’d be emotionally wounded by constantly denying ourselves our needs, or Michael and/or I would start getting more money and start standing up for ourselves more—which would leave C feeling turned-on bc she would have had no idea there was a problem in the first place, or Michael and I would start looking for an escape route and get out, with C never knowing how exactly things got so bad between us.
Of course, it is possible (and desirable) that the relationship would evolve to where it would cease being “Michael and I” and C. But if it did, that wouldn’t change the power balance of ’C can survive without either or both Michael and Jess. Neither Michael nor Jess can survive on their own and they could barely stay afloat together.’
Now, if everyone living together is in a situation where they can barely support themselves, you get a different situation which isn’t as bad but is still not exactly healthy. At “best” you have a mutually assured destruction situation which means everyone is working to keep everyone else happy and looking over their shoulders worrying about “what happens if we fall apart.”
However, other aspects of social dynamics also come into play. If everyone is in the same boat financially, but two of them always support each other, they have an advantage over the other people in the home.
It’s Not All Extreme
I’ve been focusing on the extreme situations both because it happens a lot more often than people with enough money to survive comfortably think and because it’s easier to see the power imbalance when we are talking about the possibility of becoming homeless. But it plays out in other ways too.
Let’s say I start dating someone who lives nearby. We’re not interested in moving in together, just enjoy each other’s company. If I can afford transportation and they can’t, then I (because I have money) have more control over the relationship than they do. I can decide to stop visiting, can decide how often I visit, can decide if I pick them up or pay for a taxi so they can come to my place. If they want to go someplace and I don’t feel like driving that far, we aren’t going.
So, if I want to go someplace that’s a distance we can, if they want to go someplace that’s a distance, they need to get me to do the driving before we can go. Power imbalance.
And just like with the living situation, they are likely to agree to things they might not agree to otherwise to keep me happy—because if I decide that instead of coming over every week I’m only coming 2x a month bc it’s not worth the gas money, they can’t say, “Okay, well how about if you come here 2x a month and I go there 2x a month?” They have no room to negotiate or offer a compromise.
It’s About Consideration and Respect
So what do you do if you have more money than your connections? If you have this power over the relationship that they don’t?
First off, it should be obvious that you don’t owe anyone your money, your time, or a relationship. I’m not saying that you owe it to a broke partner to spend money on them. You don’t.
But like Uncle Ben says, “With great power comes great responsibility.” In this case, the responsibility to make sure that you aren’t inadvertently hurting other people with your power.
What does that mean?
It means talking with your connections, acknowledging the power imbalance, and making sure that they feel safe talking with you about concerns and problems.
It means not getting resentful when you are the one doing all the driving or paying for the expensive restaurant that you wanted to go to.
It means not pressuring your connection to do expensive activities or making them feel ashamed because they can’t pay for a local Poly Cocktails event.
Perhaps most importantly it means making an effort to be sure that your connections are getting what they want and need in the relationship. They have an incentive to keep you happy that you don’t have—so you need to make an extra effort to be sure that you aren’t coasting.
This Isn’t Universal
Social dynamics are funny things. In my first triad, for several years almost our entire income came from one partner who actually had the least status and power in our relationship. He just got (unintentionally on my part) bowled over by my other partner and myself and didn’t know how to or feel safe asserting himself to us. It never occurred to me that he might take his income and move out (since we had a joint lease he couldn’t kick us out). If he had, my other partner and I would have been screwed. But because I didn’t think of it as a possibility, his power remained potential and not actual.
So there are times when the person with the most money ends up having the least power in a relationship. This isn’t a set-in-stone thing. But by-and-large, more money means more social status and more real-world power over a relationship. Especially when the people in a relationship aren’t married and things like alimony and fair division of assets will never come into play.
Remember: Power and Privilege Stack
If you are in a relationship where you benefit from couple privilege AND you have more money than your single or single-presenting partner, that gives more you more power than either money or couples privilege would give you alone. And people who are already getting shit from society—people who are trans, gay, people of color, disabled, mentally ill, etc (and especially multiple of these)—are more likely to be poor. So please, be aware of your power in a relationship. Don’t run roughshod over your partners without realizing it because you have money and they don’t.
This post is part of the Polyamory Finances blog series.