The Struggle For (Financial) Power In A Marriage

Ever since Mr. FAF and I got married about three and a half years ago, it’s always been tug of war for power between us.

Maybe Mr. FAF just thinks I’m too independent and stubborn. I want to make most decisions by myself and control everything, especially when it comes to finances.

But for me, it means much for than that.

Where I come from

Growing up in a traditional family in Vietnam where I was constantly told that the husband is supposed to have the most power in a family, I found it so unreasonable that I wanted to rebel.

Why is it that the man always has the final say in everything?

Why is it that both the husband and the wife work full-time, but the husband has the luxury of enjoying himself when he wants, while the wife has to always worry about whether she’s done a great job taking care of the house?

In Vietnam, the husband can go to a karaoke and drink beer with his friends after work.

But the wife has to go straight home to pick up the kids, give them a bath, cook dinner, and wait for the husband to come home drunk so that she can do the honorable role of a wife: taking care of the drunken husband.

If he’s not at a restaurant laughing and talking with his friends, the husband goes home, turns on the TV, or reads a newspaper, leaving the wife to her own devices.

This is not traditions. It’s gender inequality and biases against women that society, including my family, has been trying to inculcate in my brain. I’m sorry, but I don’t want any of that.

The wife also has to handle all the finances, seeing if she can save $1 on an outfit or daily groceries while the husband can just blow up $200 on drinks and food with his friends  just because he wants to show off his (imaginary) wealth.

In my family, whenever we have a big get-together where a lot of cooking is involved, the women always have to do grocery shopping, cook, serve all the men during the meals, and then do the dishes and cleaning up. What do the husbands do? They just sit there watching TV waiting for food to be served.

And the problem is that everyone thinks it’s ok and even encourages this type of entitled behavior. A woman is considered lucky if her husband doesn’t cheat on her despite all the abuse that he might do to her.

I know not every family is like that. But this general trend is usually accepted everywhere in Vietnam.

Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always wondered why all the women in my extended family work full-time and sometimes make as much as or more than their husbands, but they have to work another shift at home (cooking, cleaning, taking care of the kids, etc.).

People told me the happiness of a woman is to be able to take care of her husband and children. I think there’s a lot of truth to it.

But if a woman feels suppressed and depressed taking care of the family all by herself without her husband sharing any responsibilities, it’s exploitation. If society tells women that they should be happy about being exploited, then the problem lies with society.

What I see in America

After coming to America, I’ve been exposed to much more than what I had seen in Vietnam. Women are seen more as equal to men despite the existing wage gaps and gender-dominated occupations.

When a couple goes on the first date, the guy is expected to pay, but they will take turns paying or split the bills once they decide to go steady. When a couple gets married, they can still have their separate accounts to spend on their personal needs.

I know these are broad generalizations, but they’re still very different from the biases I see in Vietnam.

Equality in a marriage

Should the wife and the husband have an equal say in every decision?

I recently read about a Norwegian study that examined thousands of couples and found that those that shared equal housework had a higher divorce rate than those where the women undertook most of the chores.

The researchers explain that among modern couples, the women tend to be highly educated and have well-paid jobs. They can walk away from an unhappy marriage more easily than women in a traditional marriage who depend on their husband financially.

That makes me think about early retirement. When you are financially free, you’re no longer bound to a job that you hate. But when you need a monthly paycheck to maintain your current lifestyle, you tend to stick with that job no matter how much you hate or even detest it.

Being financially free enables us to choose the job that we like and stay with the husband we love. This is the key reason why I plan to work full-time if I have a choice.

I know a lot of women decide to be a stay-at-home mom, and I admire them for making such a big sacrifice for their family. As for me, my sense of insecurity and uncertainty tells me to stay in the workforce under any circumstances until I’m financially free.

I want to be financially independent to make the right decisions for myself and my children. I want to plan for anything that comes my way no matter how much I trust Mr. FAF.

Is everything in society organized as a pyramid where only one person can stay at the top?

The struggle to be equal

Theoretically, a married couple should make decisions together or compromise to reach a decision. In practice, does it mean each spouse has 50% of the power in the relationship? Can there be two leaders with equal power in an entity?

At a company, all of the employees have equal rights. But there’s a hierarchy with different levels of decision-making power with the CEO at the top.

In every country, whether a democracy or an autocracy, there’s always one leader (i.e. president, prime minister) that has the most power.

I started thinking about other entities in society (i.e. school, university, organization) and realized they all have someone sitting at the top. This pyramid structures adds stability and predictability to such entities.

In a marriage, if the husband and wife are always struggling for more decision-making power, there’s bound to be clashes and dissatisfaction. But if there’s one person, be it the husband or the wife, who has the utmost say in all or most decisions, there will be less deadlock in the decision-making process.

The couple can be an dictatorship where one person makes all the decisions for the family whether their spouse agrees or not. Alternatively, they can behave like a democracy where the husband or the wife consults their spouse, but only one person can make the final decision.

I have been trying over the past 3.5 years to be the person with the utmost power in a democratic marriage. Sometimes that drive takes a toll on our marriage.

After various clashes and episodes of frustration, I finally realized maybe it’s time for me to stop trying too hard (sometimes too aggressively) to be the leader in the family and trust Mr. FAF with his leadership.

I’ve always tried to control every little purchase Mr. FAF’s made since we got married. Most of the time I feel exhausted having to monitor and convince him to save more although he’s already a frugal person.

He always asks me about purchases over $20, so I should trust that he’s aware of our financial situation and only buys things he needs.

Conclusion

Sometimes my newlywed cousin asks me for marriage advice. But I have to be honest with her and tell her I’m still trying to find my way to a more happy marriage.

Most of the time, things are great between Mr. FAF and me. But when there’re disagreements, it can cause an extreme amount of stress and disappointment in our family.

After 3.5 years of being married to Mr. FAF, I have decided to not micro-manage everything and focus more on the big picture.

If there’s only one person who has the ultimate decision-making power, I will let Mr. FAF take on that role more often to see if it can yield the best outcomes and the most happiness for our family.

Do you think that a husband and a wife should always have an equal say in a marriage? If yes, how do we make sure that it works smoothly? I’d love to hear your thoughts. 

Related:

How Frugality Brought Us Together As A Couple

The Costs of Marital Conflict

The Free Article That Helped Our Marriage

Interview With Mr. FAF – Husband Of A Personal Finance Blogger



29 thoughts on “The Struggle For (Financial) Power In A Marriage”

  • “People told me the happiness of a woman is to be able to take care of her husband and children.”

    Omg I so choked. I need a penis because someone need to take care of me!!! Put me in charge of kids and I’ll lose them in the mall probably.

    Sometimes I feel really lucky to be in America (obviously as opposed to pretty much elsewhere, goooo America!!) It’s not a gender thing…It’s just nice to be an individual with options. Ever heard of options!!! Options are fun – freedom to choose is good.

    What you described is very similar to the southern Chinese expectations for women. It doesn’t apply to all families though, thankfully. My mom wears the pants and she doesn’t put up with any of my dad’s screw ups.

    Marriage is hard. But you and Mr FAF have put in a lot of work and thought into topics like this. Jared and I don’t even talk about this stuff because it’s automatically decided I make the final move. It’s not a gender thing. It’s a choice. Options!!!

    • OMG Lily!!! LOL.

      Mr. FAF told me part in some parts of China (especially rural areas), women are not supposed to eat with the family. They cook the food, stay in the kitchen until everyone is finished, and then eat the leftovers (if there are any). I can’t believe someone even came up with that rule, but it sounds kinda messed up. Gender equality is much better in Shanghai because the city’s been well exposed to Western ideology, trade, and business, all of which calls for female participation.

      One area Mr. FAF has the utmost control over is ordering dishes at a Chinese restaurant. I just sit there and eat whatever he orders. Looking at the menu makes me dizzy @_@

  • To me I don’t really care who has the ultimate control and I don’t think that it should be the central point of a family. I truly believe that families should work on goals that optimizes the family’s happiness, health and wealth.

    The decision makers should be the one with the expertise to make the best decision, not by default power in the family. In addition, I think that the best leaders are the ones that build a team of experts around him/her and use their expertise to help achieve the best results. I always believed that two heads are better than one when it come to problem solving.

    • You made a great point, Leo! I think part of the problem is that in some cases both spouses think they’re experts on an issue, so it’s not easy to even decide who has the better expertise to make the decision despite all the analysis. >_<

  • I know it’s a sensitive topic, and it saddens me to hear how women are treated in certain cultures. I believe a husband and a wife should be a team, not only when it comes to finances but when taking any decision that can affect both. There are certain things women are best at, just like there are certain things men are best at, so I believe finding that balance in a relationship is what helps it last.

  • In our marriage, we both have equal say. BUT if we can’t agree on the decision, my husband gets to make the decision. That doesn’t happen often, of course. We do really well about discussing and praying and figuring things out together. But on the occasion that he makes the final decision, while it’s hard for me to be okay with it, I appreciate his leadership. I will say though, that he has learned to take my opinion even more seriously after the few times he has had final say and it backfired.
    All that to say, that while I do think marriage is an equal partnership, you are right. There has to be a leader or it is a constant battle. But good leaders also listen to counsel. Which is where my role as his wife and partner comes in.
    I think we’re all trying to make our marriages good marriages. And you letting Mr. FAF lead is tough I’m sure. Especially after so long of you both struggling for it. It’s awesome that you are working together to make your marriage stronger. That’s something I know you will never regret.

    • Thank you, Ember! I’m learning to let go and not to be obsessed with trying to get things right all the time. It’s really exhausting…

  • I think that traditions probably influence our decisions, but in general I handle the money in my relationship with Kristin. Part of that is just because I tend to be more in-the-know on things (which is what happens as a personal finance blogger) and I also have much more interest in them.

    That being said, we talk about everything and have equal input. Just because I want to do something, doesn’t mean I just have free reign to run the show. We value each other’s input and make decisions together; I just tend to be more of the bookkeeper and answer questions when she has them. It’s worked for us so far. 🙂

    It’s good that you and Mr FAF are talking about stuff, but I’d imagine it’s very difficult for you to relinquish some of that control.

    • Thank you for your insight, Dave! It’s great that you and Kristin have a system that works for both of you. I’m the bookkeeper too, but I do get tired of it sometimes. I’m still learning how to be a good wife ^.^

  • Oh Ms. FAF, this is one of my favorite post ever. I come from a country where women are viewed as the lesser gender. I grew up watching my mom get kicked and beaten by my dad and she couldn’t do anything about it, why? Because it is a taboo for a woman to divorce her husband. In my country, women are told to endure cheating and abuse silently without voicing out. They are told to pray when things go wrong. Daily, we get news of women dying in abusive marriages.

    I have always wanted a different life. One where everyone is equal. My views about life has brought a lot of friction between my mom and I. They think I’m crazy wanting something different.?

    If I get married, I would want a home where we both have an equal say. What matters most is respect and trust.

    I pinned this article to a relationship group board on Pinterest

    • Thank you for sharing your story, Anne! I totally know what you mean about domestic violence. Domestic violence is rampant in Vietnam as well, and I too had to witness it growing up. I swore to myself I’d never let it happen to me. That’s one key reason why I want to be financially independent. I can walk away when things get bad and won’t need to worry about what society thinks because I don’t live for them.

  • You might want to try out an allowance system. When we started being more frugal, we had $200/month each to spend on whatever we want. That way we don’t have to micromanage each other’s spending.
    In our marriage, we have mostly equal vote. I’m more experience with investment so I’m mostly in charge there. Mrs. RB40 isn’t that interested. As long as our net worth is doing okay, she’s fine with whatever I do. I keep her updated via the blog. 🙂
    Great post.

    • We do the allowance system, too, Joe. In general it works great. We don’t question each other’s small purchases and have freedom and independence there. We have gotten into trouble when I shut down all the things he wants to buy and not see that I’m being hypocritical and spending for stuff I want. Sometimes, it’s worth the peace to let him buy what he needs to buy.

    • Thanks for the great suggestion, Joe! I think I might have to implement this allowance system. I’m getting really tired of micromanagement when I have other more important things to worry about (such as my blog :D).

  • I’m a lesbian so I don’t have to deal with men. BUT the book Revolution at Point Zero by Silvia Fredici opened my eyes to the unpaid labor women do in society, whether or not they are married to men.

    For example, professions that are typically considered women’s professions are paid less than professions that are typically considered men’s professions because society doesn’t value women’s labor.

    Basically, women do a lot of free labor. This takes the forms you mentioned – taking care of children, doing house work, and taking care of their husband. All of these are not treated as economic activities and are not tied to money. However, they are economic activities. Taking care of children is free labor for the state and produces workers. Doing housework and taking care of the husband also is economic work. By doing all of this, it makes it possible for the husband to spend 8 hours a day at work. It also makes it possible for the wife to spend 8 hours a day at work, in the case she also works.

    In the U.S., if a woman stays at home, she misses out on career growth as well as more easily measurable benefits, like Social Security contributions.

    How do you think it would go over in the financial independence community to make a post like this:
    Side hustle: Charge your husband for all the free labor you provide.
    Side hustle: Swap children and charge for it, since the only way to get paid by watching children is by watching other people’s children.

    • It is really unfortunate that SAHMs don’t get the same credit as their working husband. Many women sacrifice so much. Yet, they receive so little from every aspect of life. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 🙂

  • In a marriage it comes down to having good communication and trusting your partner. Making unilateral decisions one way or the other will not result in success in the long term. It also depends on different values, expectations, and goals that your partner has. This is too broad of a topic to say what will work for everyone. Also, you should not be actively seeking a struggle in your marriage. Decide what works that will result in harmony and go from there.

    • Thanks for your input, Jeff! You are absolutely right. Being a dictator will not turn out well. I’m still learning to strike a balance. It’s a work in progress! 🙂

  • It’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all because every marriage is different and every person is different. But I do agree that this kind of thing happens quite a bit outside of the US. Especially in Asian countries where it’s historically been that way. Not saying that it’s ok by the way. The US was similar back in the day, but gender equality has been rising. For my wife and me, it just comes down to trust and some sacrifice on both ends. Neither of us micromanage each other. But earlier on in the marriage, me being the more frugal one, I used to micro-manage quite a bit. Especially her purchases. We’ve been married for a little over 7 years and we have a better handle on things. Plus earlier on we weren’t making as much money. These days, because our finances are in a better place, we don’t even check our restaurant bill or menu prices; we just order whatever want to eat. And we rarely check the price tag when shopping for clothes. As long as it’s not like a $2000 jacket (which I saw once at a Saks, or was it Neiman Marcus, I forget). Trust me, we just went there for fun; not to shop. I think as time goes by in a marriage, both of you start moderating and end up more closer to the middle. And both start to realize that the small things just aren’t worth arguing about.

  • I think the power struggle is due to each spouse’s personal philosophy on how to bring overall wellness to the family. I agree things are more equal here, and even when spending differs, it usually comes down to individuals trying to make the right choices for the family. Drinking and partying with friends is definitely not on that list, imo! But I think overall if your partner puts the family first 90% of the time financially, it’s ok they splurge and treat themselves here and there even if you don’t agree what’s “worth it” to spend on for personal use 🙂

  • Ha – this post hits home on so many fronts. I’ve seen the balance shift in subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways from my grand parents to my parents (who were surprisingly open-minded in hindsight) to my wife & myself. Money in our marriage has gotten much easier the longer we’re married. We used to do allowances but don’t follow them strictly any more as implicitly know that the other won’t go crazy with their spending. We also value each other’s independence so are comfortable with the other spending as they see fit. Trust and independence.

  • Ms. FAF,
    I completely understand where you’re coming from. Although I didn’t grow up in Korea, I was stationed there or visited for more than a decade of my life and know exactly what the cultural expectations of women are. This is why we decided we would live in the U.S. after I retired from the military FROM South Korea, my final duty station. My girls are not going to grow up in a culture where women do not have as much of a right as men to choose their paths in life. This culture is steadily improving in South Korea (hey, they elected the first female President before the U.S. will) but old traditions (expectations) still persist.

  • I almost choked when I read “The wife also has to handle all the finances, seeing if she can save $1 on an outfit or daily groceries while the husband can just blow up $200 on drinks and food with his friends just because he wants to show off his (imaginary) wealth.” This is very indicative of some areas of China as well. Men feel the need to flaunt their “wealth” even if it puts them in debt because if they don’t show off how successful they are, then it causes them to lose face.

    Marriage is hard and money is the topic that most couples fight about. You and Mr. FAF have put in so much hard work into your relationship- I’m confident you guys will figure out the best approach for your family.

  • I believe their should not be a ‘dictatorship’ between couples where either the husband or wife makes all decisions, it should be who has more knowledge of the decision in question. In most cases the person with more knowledge, experience and expertise should make that decision. At the same time the person with lesser knowledge should not completely be silent in these decision rather have some input to factor in for the decision-maker.
    The topics where both the husband and wife think they have equal or more expertise should just sit down and discuss with each other. Hopefully both can be open-minded with each other’s view on the topic at hand and make a decision together.

  • What I learned in relationships (and through counselling as I mentioned earlier in a comment on one of your earlier posts) is that you can’t change anyone and when you try to control your loved one it usually backfires. It sounds like Mr. FAF is already frugal, but micromanaging his every purchase is probably not going to work out in the most positive outcome. A previous suggestion of having separate money sounds good (for discretionary spending like eating out or something like that). I have been there- though my boyfriend at the time (we didn’t even have joint expenses or weren’t even living together!) was in debt and he told me “I’ll pay off my debt in 3 months”. It wasn’t much, it was just $2K. To me I was worried because I was thinking “hey how is he going to afford to contribute to a wedding if this relationship is going down the path of marriage?” I would scrutinize his purchases (he liked to eat fancy dinners and was quite the Foodie, he also liked to spend money on his car) and be upset that he had not paid off his debt in the 3 months. He said he valued frugality too but his actions did not match his words. I didn’t like the person I was with him (controlling and micromanaging) and we broke up.

  • I observed a ton of this inequality growing up, and even though my parents respected my independence, they were still unconsciously reflecting some of this to me. I had uncles tell me I “have to be nice” to my boyfriends, the implications being that they can act any way they want but I have to be the nice one. I laughed in their faces and replied, if they want me to be nice to them, then they should earn it. I rarely ever have to TRY to be nice to PiC, he’s always a great guy who is easy to be nice to. And you know what? When he’s being someone I don’t want to be nice to, then we have to have a conversation about that. I’m not mean to him in those instances, but I don’t pretend to be nice. THAT is why we have a wonderful marriage.

    • I totally agree with you. You don’t have to be a man to earn someone’s respect. And a man doesn’t automatically get respect from me if he doesn’t deserve it. This whole double standard needs to stop at one point. It irks me to no end!

  • In a perfect world, men and women would each have 50% say in every decision, but I don’t think that’s realistic. If one member of the couple is more financially skilled, that person should probably have more say in the financial decisions. Each member of the couple has his/her own skills (and weaknesses) and can contribute to the relationship in their own way.

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