Tips For Navigating Financial Dependence In Relationships

It seems like the perfect setup: giving up the long commutes, stuffy office culture, and stressful work environments altogether because your partner makes enough money to support both of you. Many of us grew up with this model in our own homes, with one parent often staying at home to care for the children and the upkeep of the house. It seems traditional and is often romanticized. But is it dangerous?

The infamous TV judge and star of the long-running courtroom reality show "Judge Judy," Judy Scheindlin, once said something rather striking during her appearance on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" in 2016. When DeGeneres asked how women can protect themselves from bad partners, Scheindlin responded, "The only way it won't happen is if you equip yourself to be financially independent. Because once a woman gives up financial independence to a mate, it's over." Explaining that a financial imbalance rules out any equality in a relationship, Scheindlin went on to say that women being financially dependent on their partner usually leads to them being "stuck" in "lifestyles that are unpleasant." "So if you're smart, you teach your daughter, teach your granddaughters, everybody has to have something that they're good at where they can earn a living," she added.

Scheindlin's warning is enough to give anyone pause, but what exactly does she mean? Are there ways that being in a financially dependent relationship can work out?

Honesty is the best financial policy

There are many reasons why you might be financially dependent on your partner. Perhaps you struggle with debt, bad credit, made some bad investments, or you simply just don't earn as much as they do annually. It's actually rather common too, as one in three women are financially dependent on their partner, according to a YouGov study. Obviously, this can cause issues going forward: perhaps your partner will grow resentful at covering the majority of the bills, or perhaps this creates a power imbalance in your dynamic. Whatever the case, experts agree honesty and open communication is the best way to navigate these issues in a healthy way. 

Financial advisor Kristin O'Keeffe Merrick told CNBC, "When forming a strong financial bond between partners, it's important to have open communication about money and each other's finances." Noting that marriage is a legal merger where your debt could easily become your partner's debt, O'Keeffe says, "Start sharing the good, bad, and the ugly about your money [...] I encourage my clients to be open about their own, separate accounts so that both parties are in the know. I've always had my own checking account and credit card. It's a personal choice. This doesn't mean that my husband and I have any money secrets."

O'Keeffe also suggests thoroughly covering tough financial topics with your significant other about debt, spending habits, savings amounts, money stressors, and retirement funds.

Outsource the chores

Being financially dependent on your partner can be a touchy subject. Even if you're still working, you can find yourself taking on an unfair share of the household burdens. The YouGov study also found that 38% of full-time working women say the household chores end up resting on their shoulders, compared to only 9% of men in the same situation. Because women have traditionally been tasked with doing the unpaid labor of household chores, your partner could expect you to do them to make up for your financial circumstances. This brings into view the gender pay gap, where women doing the exact same labor as men in the workplace are paid less wages, and then have to go home and do even more unpaid labor at home. CTV News reported that even at the top executive levels, men were earning annually $950,000 more than women in the same position.

The UN reports that this unpaid domestic labor actually can be valued at as much as 39% of the Gross Domestic Product. So if your labor is worth something, it should be paid something. In that case, you might benefit from outsourcing. Hire a cleaner to take on the household tasks, even if it's just for a few hours a week. A personal assistant can run errands and do administrative work. Make sure that you split those costs with your partner. Just because he thinks chores are your job, they're not solely your job to pay for. 

Plan your exit if you get stuck

Of course, many of you have guessed by now that financial dependency is dangerous when your relationship turns sour and, at worst, abusive. First, you find you have no say in the financial choices or you have to seek approval to buy things, which establishes a power imbalance, affecting your sense of self-worth and independence. This leaves the door open for abuse, whether emotional, mental, or physical. Then, just as Judge Judy predicted, you're stuck. The UK charity Refuge and the Co-operative Bank recently reported on their research into financial abuse within relationships and found that 8.7 million people reported experiencing economic abuse. The National Domestic Violence Hotline reported that one of the top reasons women stay in abusive relationships is because they don't have the financial means to leave or support themselves. They feel stuck and have to tolerate abuse, which can be detrimental to their lives and their children's lives.

There are things you can do in that situation. Make sure you secretly open your own savings account that only you can control. Keep building that emergency fund little by little, and plan a realistic budget that you can stick to. You should also gather important documents or make physical and digital copies of them: passports, bank statements, payslips, birth certificates, and any documents that prove you have ownership of certain belongings or assets will make your exit smoother.

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support on their website.

Protect yourself if your partner financially depends on you

You may find yourself on the other end of the spectrum: you are the breadwinner. When that happens, women especially have to take steps to protect themselves from their partners defrauding them should the relationship break down. 

Money expert and blogger Ellie Austin-Williams told Refinery29, "A lot of people aren't aware of the financial implications of co-signing a lease and taking out joint bills with their partner and the importance of cutting these ties formally if the relationship breaks down." In the case of a breakup, Austin-Williams advises you to secure your accounts with different PINs and passwords.  "If you have reason to suspect your ex might clear out your bank account or run up debts on your credit card, you can ask the bank to freeze the card."

She also suggests spotting the warning signs, like if your partner has, "unexplained purchases and funds appearing, and asking you to sign documents out of the blue without clear explanation." Writer and author Iona Bain also told the outlet that having a cohabitation agreement can also protect your assets. "While a cohabitation agreement may seem unromantic, a partner who really cares about you and your peace of mind won't resist it."