The Invisible Contract
Negotiation can be difficult at the best of times, but between spouses, it can be even more so. And in instances where there is a power imbalance it can be not just daunting, but a bit sickening as well.
A recently separated woman came into my office the other day. She had been a stay-at-home mother for twelve years, looking after their three children, and her former husband was a lawyer.
In her words, he was “a good breadwinner”, so he “held all the cards in the family”, and as such, “made all the decisions”. This didn’t happen overnight, but was rather a slow and steady pattern that emerged after years of raising a family paired with innumerable compromises. Despite swearing to never find herself in that traditional pattern, she realized she had fallen into it nevertheless.
Their negotiations went like this. She would propose something. He would dismiss it.
She reported that even when she would make her argument, he would simply say no. The woman, frustrated by years of trying and worried about her own security and peace of mind, would give in. And eventually she stopped trying altogether.
Sometimes, it just feels easier that way.
And in reality, she really wasn’t on a level playing field with her spouse. As the person who paid the bills, and earned 100 % of their income, her husband felt he had more say, and most importantly, so did she. Earning the sole family income is a tough job. It’s a lot of pressure for a person to shoulder alone. In many instances, there is underlying anger living in the working spouse. Often women feel that they have a right to, essentially, opt out of the workforce and raise the kids. And the man feels it is his duty to support that decision if he is a good father and husband. These role expectations are often unconscious and undiscussed.
Ideally, an agreement would be reached about role expectations well before partnerships are formed. And if not then, at least before one person quits their job. Or decides to stay home even longer than previously agreed upon.
One strategy I have proposed to mitigate inequality in a one earner family is that the half of earnings be deposited into a sole-named account for the stay at home spouse. If it is a truly equal financial partnership this shouldn’t be a problem, right?
Yet in all of my professional years, I have yet to see a couple agree to do this.
And the one staying home surrenders it. And they both know an invisible chain binds them.
This means that each will have to articulate what they REALLY want - and they may not agree. But not bringing these boiling subterranean issues to the surface has a far greater price for all concerned. And the unspoken beliefs and fears may have repercussions far greater later than the argument you could have today.
(Psssttt… attend Donna and Dr. Marshall Soules’ workshop at Sophia Wealth Academy 10 on “Talking About the Hard Stuff!)