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December 19, 2008

Karen Karbo channels Jackie O: 'Never marry or mix your money'


There you are, the secret to happiness in only six words.

Ms. Karbo's "Modern Love" feature in last Sunday's New York Times Styles section should be mandatory reading for all girls and women — before they fall in love.

The essay follows.

    The Accidental Breadwinner

    I didn't set out to be the breadwinner. I assumed that one day a guy would come along and I would marry him and, well, he’d take care of it. This is one of the fundamental ways in which men differ from women. Growing up, boys assume they’re going to make the money, or at least half the money. Rare is the boy who imagines that marriage will spell a free economic ride and so nurtures his incredible hotness to that end.

    While I couldn’t imagine being my mother, vacuuming on Monday, dusting on Tuesday, etc., neither did I see myself as a high-powered earner. I switched majors from journalism to physical therapy to film. I got good grades, which was something I knew how to do, but beyond that ... well, there was no beyond that.

    When it came to relationships, I was not a romantic ditherer. I liked someone, and either he liked me or he didn’t. If he did, we would become inseparable until the horrific breakup in which we would both shriek and sob and engage in a little stalking and, years later, wind up good friends.

    In film school, I had a short, strange romance with a French guy, Guillaume, who wore silk shirts, had impeccable manners, and paid for everything. I don’t think I opened my purse in his presence once. Even though I didn’t love him, I was happy.

    Until the night he stopped by my apartment at 11 o’clock and caught me in a pair of paint-stained sweat pants. He was appalled, refused to come in. He felt that since we were in a relationship, I should always look my best, as if I were a babe-on-call, ready at all hours to be seductive and kittenish. Yeah, I’ll get right on that. Adieu, Guillaume.

    I met my first husband on the heels of my breakup with the ridiculous Guillaume. James and I lived together for an embarrassing number of years before we married and had our daughter. In the early years we were financial idiots, putting film stock on our credit cards to shoot the documentaries we were co-producing while subsisting on Top Ramen noodles. I was not the de facto breadwinner, but I had the steady job, at a nonprofit film arts center. James freelanced as a sound editor.

    It didn’t start out as a terrible arrangement. But James wanted to direct and started to turn down sound-editing work. This left me making not just the steady money but all the money. His big break was always just around the corner.

    By the time the marriage ended, I had published two books and begun writing for magazines. It wasn’t a reliable living, but it wasn’t bad. As long as I kept my overhead low, I could make it work, and did. I often wonder: If I had been dependent on James financially, would I have walked out so easily? It brings up a question that can only be posed uneasily: Is it better for the longevity of a marriage if one party (usually the woman) feels financially trapped?

    It’s not just a problem from my mother’s era. Several years ago, a friend of mine decided she’d had enough of her arts administrator job. With the support of her husband, who worked somewhat unhappily as a doctor, she quit with the idea of taking a year off to decide what she wanted to do. The year slid into two, then three. She walked her dogs, attended yoga classes. Then her life became a third-rate show on basic cable: she discovered her husband was having an affair with a nurse, and worse, when she confronted him, he said he wasn’t going to stop.

    My friend was devastated. She knew she had to get out but couldn’t bring herself to file for divorce. I imagined that she was afraid to be alone, that she would miss her husband’s companionship. “There’s always Match.com,” I said, trying to console her.

    She snorted. “It’s not that. I don’t have a job, and I don’t think I could get a job that would pay enough.”

    Enough to live in the way she had become accustomed, she meant.

    They are still married.

    My second marriage was a disaster of Springeresque proportions. The short explanation? The more money I made, the less inclined my husband felt to contribute. It didn’t start out that way. I didn’t size him up and think, “Here’s a guy who, with a little encouragement, can become a deadbeat of dazzling proportions!”

    No, the Cuddle Bum (as I’ve come to call him) had a good blue-collar job when I met him. Like many overeducated women, I’m unaccountably drawn to men who know how to throw up wallboard, build a rock wall and effortlessly avoid shooting themselves in the head with a nail gun. This man seemed to grasp the homely importance of getting up before dawn, working past dark and bringing home a regular paycheck. I’d hoped that the Cuddle Bum would be the steady earner, and I would be able to write without the burden of supporting our suddenly largish family of three children — my daughter, and his daughter and son from previous marriages.

    Then, within our first year, the Cuddle Bum quit his job on a whim. I was in Los Angeles for several weeks researching a book, and he thought it would be romantic to simply show up one day. Surprise! I don’t know how I kept myself from morphing into the shrew wife with her hair in curlers, wielding a rolling pin.

    There was, of course, something else going on. The Cuddle Bum hated his job — and who could blame him? He wanted to get into another field, perhaps one that required his going back to school.

    In the meantime, we decided that the Cuddle Bum would be the househusband. My role as breadwinner was thus made official. The Cuddle Bum’s idea of his role involved pouring a bowl of cereal for each child before school, playing videogames for 10 hours, and then grudgingly making dinner at 6. For almost a year, I told him that wasn’t working for me, that if he wasn’t going to care for the entire household the way a wife would (vacuum on Mondays, dust on Tuesdays ...) then he needed to go back to work. Much of the time, I expressed this wish to the back of his head as he tried to slay two-headed ogres on the TV.

    When we divorced, he wanted alimony, child support and the house — the house that was purchased with my money, in my name. During one of our last conversations, I wept with incomprehension. He wanted my house? Whatever happened to the way people divorce in the movies, where the husband packs a bag and moves into a sad hotel, leaving his wife (whom he supported) in the house?

    The Cuddle Bum said that if I insisted on leaving him, he had no choice but to play hardball. (In response, I stepped up my freelancing work and got a better lawyer, who spun things into my favor quite nicely. Don’t talk to me about hardball.)

    Years ago, I sat next to Jackie Onassis at a literary event in Boston. We got to talking (or rather she talked and I sat in breathless awe) as she told me the piece of advice she often gave to young women: that they should never marry or mix their money. There was another young woman listening in, and I could see her expression harden in disapproval. But I thought, Exactly! For those of us predetermined to be breadwinners, it’s more fun to date a man than to marry him. We understand that the more people we have under our roof, the more it costs us. I am appalled by how unromantic this sounds, but there you have it.

    I’m sure Jackie was talking about something completely different, about the trials of being married to very wealthy men. But I took her point.

    And this time around I’ve taken her advice. Jim (yes, another one) and I have lived together for seven years, and we’re happy. We laugh a lot, have regular sex and never call names when we argue. He’s a computer consultant who pays his own way and buys me the occasional unexpected present. Once I admired a fountain pen in the window of a shop that sold only fountain pens; while I was waiting at the corner for the light to change, he ducked in and bought it for me. I swooned.

    The day Jim and I moved in together, I gave him a formal accounting of how much our monthly nut would be; he would pay for himself, and I would pay for my daughter and me. Since then, he has written me a check for his portion on the 15th of every month. Sometimes he buys the groceries, and sometimes I do. But he always pays for both of us when we go to the movies, and spends lavishly on buttered popcorn and Milk Duds. I am always touched by this.

    Despite my arrival at this pragmatic junction, I still would love to experience life as a pampered princess, at least once. I’d love to be the kind of woman you see in jewelry commercials around the holidays who sits before a fire, a cashmere throw over her knees. Suddenly, her beloved swoops in with a velvet-covered box, bearing some hideous pendant that nevertheless cost real money.

    I envy this woman because she is so taken with her beloved’s generosity. She never says, “Honey, why did you buy me this piece of crap when you know I need a new crown on my back molar?” I would love to be a woman who can forget — if only for the time it takes to buy a tube of $250 eye cream — that the money I spend is money I made by the proverbial sweat of my own brow. I would love to be a woman who is able to indulge in the magical thinking that romance always matters more than money.

    I say this, and then I remember my long-ago Frenchman, the only one who ever paid for everything, and how the price I paid was being a babe-on-call. Some people may need smelling salts or a slap in the face to bring them back to reality. For that (and that only), I’ll always have Guillaume.


Alas, you're far more apt to follow in my footsteps and live according to what's on a button I've had on my fridge since forever; it reads, "Take my advice — I'm not using it."


December 19, 2008 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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I think any marriage that morphs into a situation where the workloads are very disparate is likely to have problems. When women have to be the breadwinners as well as the primary care parents (and many women have to fulfill both roles), resentment is going to build. If both partners are working full time (even with different incomes) or if the couple has agreed that one person should stay home with the children, neither party needs to feel used. But, when you feel you are doing everything because your spouse has decided your job gives him freedom not to have to contribute financially and doesn't want to be Mr Mom, it is very hard to remain enthusiastic about your marriage

Posted by: liteyear | Jan 12, 2009 11:28:35 PM

Clifyt, well said. I feel exactly the same way about giving money to the homeless and most everything else you've elaborated on here with slight variations. Perhaps you are correct in saying we might be on the same page.

Posted by: Two peas in a pod Miles | Dec 22, 2008 10:58:31 AM

Oh Milena, you knows you agree with me on more than just this. I may be blunt, unkempt and a bit sloshy at times, but I'm also right. That's all you have to focus on!

Beyond that, you are absolutely right -- the ONLY reason to be in a committed relationship is if you are 100% committed to the other person. This is all about you, not about the other person...in this me me me society, we forget this, and forget our vows...I haven't been married in my 3 and a half decades on this planet because I haven't found someone I was 100% committed to, and I'm not going to go in with any thing less than an all-or-nothing attitude (emphasis on the all). I was close at times...but the other wasn't...

There is something I'm always reminded in both of my 'churches' (I attend both Quaker and Buddhist services), unconditional love. We are soooo taught to put conditions on everything. A give and take...if you give me this, I will give you that. Love is not supposed to be this way...there should be no conditions on love...it should be given unconditionally and to as many as possible. It is like when you see a homeless man asking for money on the street...most of us think "He is just going to waste it on booze"...this might be right...it might not be. You should not be asking why you are giving...give if you can (or truly want to), but don't put conditions on it. You do this because it make *YOU* a better person...and hopefully, it helps.

Love is the same way, you give it because you can...not because you expect anything in return for it. It is nice when it is returned, but not necessary. Once in a committed loving relationship, you do everything you can for the others...the vows are not just some archaic pretty words to be recited in a white dress / black tux party...they are there because you mean it. If you are not committed, don't say the words.

Personally, the ONLY reason I would ever divorce someone is infidelity...I'm not willing to share my intimate affections with anyone else and I expect the same. Some might say this is essentially greedy too and the opposite of unconditional love...and they'd be right. I'm just not that advanced of a human being just yet...and hope I never will be...

Posted by: clifyt | Dec 22, 2008 10:05:33 AM

"If you are in a relationship, what is yours is mine and mine is yours."

Lovely romantic notion, but I totally understand where Mrs. Karbo is coming from.

Not that I agree with her sentiments to always imagining not being the primary breadwinner, I've always imagined both parties contributing as best they could to the financial pot, but reality is often different from theory.

For the record, I've no problem with being the primary breadwinner and my partner being the househusband - provided he's actually a househusband and not just the extra large sized spare child in the house. All the same it leaves a bad taste in the mouth when a person suddenly starts thinking about how they're going to be spending my money purchasing things they never would have afforded on their own steam...

I'm pretty sure Mrs. Karbo would continue supporting her current partner should he find himself inexplicably out of a job, but it is EXHAUSTING to be in a relationship in which one feels completely taken advantage of by the other person, simply because you are responsible fiscally.

Money is a very important part of any relationship, no matter how repugnant this might be to our sensibilities - not dealing with the issue because it's a difficult one to deal with leads to the breakdown of a lot of relationships which are otherwise fine. I actually applaud Mrs. Karbo for having sorted it out in her relationship so that neither party feels there's an inbalance and can go on to enjoy the more traditionally enjoyable parts of a relationship (the whole 'Love' part).

Forgetting about that is what leads to a lot of honest women (and men) ending up a lot worse off financially, and quite a few lazy charmers ending up a lot better off financially.

Posted by: IB | Dec 22, 2008 4:56:17 AM

I read Mrs. Karbo's rambling commentary on what she considers to be the essence of balance in a successful relationship with dismay. The problem is that I cannot state with exactitude why exactly that is without sounding like I'm some regressed female. The one thing I do know is that to go the route of "traditional" and un-traditional roles is never a set formula. There are requirements which we become more attuned to the older, and (hopefully) the wiser we become about ourselves and what works for us as potential partners to someone.

What I do feel to be wrong is that she promotes a view that is non-conducive to true partnership. This brick wall division of assets seems fair and practical in the reading of it, but I do wonder whether it allows for true and full openness in her relationship with her current partner. She seems to be saying that she is quite content to guard her own back thank you very much so then, why have a partner at all? Should he become economically non-viable and not be able to buy her the milk duds, fountain pens and groceries, would she lose much? Probably not. So then, why does she need him? The at once thorny and simple answer is - love. And love is all about openness, trusting and risking with the constant prospect of loss no matter that one tries to do all the right things. That's why when people say that marriage is a gamble, they are right on the money (pun intended).

Having spouted all that nonsense, I have to state for the record that this is the second time I agree with Clifyt on a sentence at least ;-) "If you are in a relationship, what is yours is mine and mine is yours." So true.

Posted by: Miles the Fair | Dec 21, 2008 12:26:43 PM

hmm... Ms. Karbo seems to be unaware of the large amount of work and attention paid by MFT's and psychiatrists recently on mapping financial personalities. It's less a matter of this is right or wrong for a man or woman and more about how you view and treat money, how your family historically has, what your social peers do, and whether you simply discuss this openly and/or have compatible money personalities. There's something very similar to an MBTI except for money matters; it can be unexpectedly revealing of subtle underground relationship dynamics and conflicts that seem unrelated, but really are tied to this factor.

Posted by: johnjohn | Dec 21, 2008 1:15:34 AM

I always hate reading this post-feminist crap. These women (and occasionally neutered men) want things to be equal but still expect the man to be responsible.

I have ALWAYS dated women with greater earning potentials than myself, but at the same time, I've always been able to pay for myself. Sometimes I do...sometimes I don't...but I have the ability to do so. It is expected. I have one ex that is far more educated than I ever was (though I'm catching up), who after everything else wanted to be a stay at home mother. I told her it might be better if I was...I have a home business that regularly pays more than my university salary (I keep the job because it pays off in insurance...and I feel I'm giving back to the community)...with her job, I could have kept insurance and taken care of any potential children. She wouldn't have any of it. The most libber of women, and she couldn't see how it would be acceptable for me to stay at home.

Recently, I met someone that is actually the opposite of the women before...she isn't as educated (though just as intelligent), doesn't have the best of jobs...and if things were to go towards her in the future, I could see myself giving anything I make over to her. If you are in a relationship, what is yours is mine and mine is yours. I wouldn't feel short changed at all.

I just love the hypocrisy of this all...men don't care about marrying economically downward...and they don't say anything about equality (mainly because we do have the advantage in todays society), women all claim to be about equality yet for the most part would never think of marrying down...or sticking around if they end up in the advantage. So much for women's lib.

Note: us men do a LOT of stupid things other than this...I'm just pointing out Ms. Karbo's lack of ethics when it comes to relationships.

Note for the note: maybe I'm just bitter right now and a little drunk...nevermind...

Posted by: clifyt | Dec 20, 2008 12:14:45 AM

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