Low-Fat Love 101: The Economics of Romance
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about social class, identity and intimate relationships. My latest novel American Circumstance, explores appearance versus reality; how our lives and relationships look versus how we experience them and the role social class plays in all of this. In the book I tried to provide a backstage view to the lives of the one percent, the replication of wealth and power in the US, and even more subtly, a global context. The US is a place with great economic disparities and yet we rarely talk about money, social class and how it all shapes identity in complex ways. While I was promoting American Circumstance I was asked to write an op-ed about how economics impacts people while they’re dating. I received numerous emails that the advice was helpful and so I am sharing it here. Remember, if you don’t want to settle for low-fat love than you need to be honest with yourself and your partner, which includes uncomfortable subjects like money, paying for things and related expectations. For this reason all of the suggestions center on open communication and truthfulness.
- Expectations: if one party hears “Saturday night date” and thinks about pizza and a movie and the other thinks five-star dining and live theater, there is a stark difference in expectations that needs to be addressed. These expectations or preferences have economic implications. Don’t be afraid to talk about the financial realities of different activities (this will continue to come up as the relationship progresses, for instance, during holiday and vacation planning). Take the time to set expectations.
- Paying: there are expectations about what you will do (above) and also how you will pay for what you do. Some couples believe in splitting everything and others feel that if one party can afford more he or she should pay more. Expectations about what you will do go hand-in-hand with arrangements about how things will be paid for. It’s best to talk openly about this to avoid awkward moments, resentment, etc.
- Insecurities: disparities in economic resources can feed insecurities if you let them, so it’s important to remember that your identity isn’t linked to your bank balance and neither is your partner’s.
- Respect: irrespective of earnings it’s important to actively show respect and offer support for each other’s work/job/profession. Value placed on one’s work can’t be based on financial rewards alone or you will produce inherent inequality in your relationship.
- Life experiences: if you and your partner grew up in different economic circumstances then you may have had a whole host of different experiences, including travel and recreational activities. These life experiences impact your taken-for-granted assumptions as well as your preferences. It’s important to be sensitive to these differences.
- Broadening: there are some life experiences that are particularly broadening. For example, travel exposes us to different cultures, education exposes us to new ideas, and so forth. You can’t assume that your partner has had similar experiences. So if he or she doesn’t know what some food item is in a French restaurant or some exotic ingredient on an episode of Chopped, tell them nicely, don’t disparage them. The more important issue is whether or not you’re interested in the experiences the other person has had and the potential for growth and learning in the future.
- Other people: friends and relatives love giving their two cents when we’re dating someone new, but be certain to manage the tone of those conversations. If you’re dating someone of a different socio-economic status be careful of falling into stereotyped ways of talking with friends and family, or endorsing it if they resort to inappropriate clichés (such as, “set for life” or “slumming it” to name a couple).
- Overcompensating: while it’s important to be aware of how economics come into play when you’re dating so that you can set expectations and act sensitively, don’t try to overcompensate for differences. This can happen in a variety of ways including, overspending and making your partner feel like a charity case, being overly frugal in order to disavow differences in economic means or pretending you’ve had life experiences that you haven’t.