A few years ago, I mentioned to a friend that the guy I was dating was a doctor. “Nice,” she replied with a knowing look. I was taken aback. Did she think I was looking for a partner to financially support me?
If she had that mentality, I wondered, how many other millennial women did? And how many, like me, could not care less about their partners’ income?
The convention of men supporting women in heterosexual relationships has come to seem less relevant as women become more financially successful. The proportion of women participating in the U.S. labor force has increased significantly over the decades, and women are now more likely than men to have college degrees. In 2015, 38 percent of women in heterosexual marriages earned more money than their husbands.
Yet many have hung onto traditional gender roles dictating that men pay for dates and provide for their partners. In one 2016 study, 68 percent of women but only 17 percent of men in the U.S. agreed with the statement, “It is essential that my partner has a steady income.”
These attitudes are influencing how people date. Men are still more likely to cover a greater portion of expenses in their relationships. If relationships don’t adhere to these gender roles, it can be distressing for those involved. When wives earn more than their husbands, their likelihood of reporting a happy marriage falls by six percentage points, and their likelihood of considering separation increases by the same amount.
Regardless of age, most people seem to be following gendered scripts for who pays on dates and supports their partner in relationships. As gender roles change, why can’t we get past this one?
Some men are reluctant to go Dutch because they don’t want to be viewed as cheap. “I will always insist on paying for dates because that’s what I expect of myself,” says 27-year-old Joseph Cadabes. He views financial contributions as “a reflection of a man’s competence, and there are few things I can think of that are less attractive to a woman than an incompetent partner.”
These attitudes could be changing, albeit slowly. A 2017 survey by Money and SurveyMonkey found that one in five Americans — but one in four millennials — disagreed with the expectation that men should pay for first dates. OKCupid data show that women ages 20 to 24 are much more likely to split the bill on first dates than women ages 40 to 44.
The sense of pride some men take in providing is central to their identities. “When their female partner is making money, in certain situations, men may feel emasculated,” says Marissa Nelson, marriage and family therapist, sex therapist, and founder of Intimacy Moons.
A 2013 study even found that men whose wives outearned them were more likely to experience erectile dysfunction.
When women care about finding a partner with a steady income, the reasons are often not as tied to gender roles. Many are unopposed to supporting a partner in principle, but feel they would not be able to. “In an ideal world, money in a relationship wouldn’t matter, but the reality is that, given what I expect to earn in the next few years, there’s no way I could afford to support myself and a partner,” says Michelle Meyers, a 28-year-old teacher and writer in LA. “I don’t expect a partner to support me either, but it would be hard if he weren’t at least a relatively equal contributor.”
Some women view the limitations on their financial contributions as a result of gender inequalities that leave them financially disadvantaged. Jessica Claflin, a 27-year-old engineer in Rhode Island, believes in men paying for dates because women spend a lot of money just getting ready, often pay more for the same items due to the “pink tax,” and are likely to make less because of the wage gap. “I want it to be equal, to balance it out,” she says.
“I met many women who mentioned that they expect the guy to pay because they are socially expected to put a lot of effort into dressing up, makeup, etcetera so the guy paying for dinner sort of compensates them for the effort in their minds,” says S.R., a 30-year-old engineer in the Bay Area.
Caring about a date’s income could also be the result of seeking high achievers. Melissa Vitale, a 25-year-old publicist in New York City, gets mislabeled as a “gold digger” because she wants her dates to be as ambitious as her. “I want a partner that wants to see me grow, as much as he also wants to grow,” she says.
“People who are the breadwinners really value partners that have a strong sense of purpose and passion for something,” says Nelson. “That seems to make for a much more egalitarian relationship because that person is maintaining a sense of self.” However, she points out, this doesn’t always mean the partner has to make a lot of money.
Other women feel it’s fair for men to contribute more financially if their partners are contributing more emotionally or around the house. “I think emotional labor also needs to be factored into the relationship in a major way,” says Vitale. “Even if my partner is always picking up the tab for drinks, if we’re doing late-night snacks and breakfast in my house, I’m also probably hosting and picking up after him and adding much more extra work than swiping my card at dinner.”
The issue is, when the tables are turned and women pay, men aren’t always as willing to assume the traditionally “feminine” role. “With women who are the breadwinners, they’re looking for support in emotional ways. When I talk to these women, there’s a desire to be tended to. There’s a desire for their partners to have a lot of empathy, to have a lot of emotional support, and to take over a lot of the roles without having to ask for it,” says Nelson. “Where things fall apart is when women feel like ‘my partner is failing to anticipate what my needs are so now I feel overstretched. Now I feel resentful because I came home, and I’m pulling a lot of weight, and you’re not even trying.’” When men do hold things down at home, Nelson finds that they sometimes feel entitled to cheat.
So, while women may be growing more open to supporting men financially, some men may be less willing to support women emotionally. And an upending of gender roles requires both changes. But many men are open to alternative ways of dividing money and labor. “I think homemaking gets a bad rap, but it’s a serious, under-appreciated, and under-compensated job,” says S.R. “If that was my job, I would do it enthusiastically.”
So, while women may be growing more open to supporting men financially, some men may be less willing to support women emotionally.
“Someone has to do the housework, and if it’s me because of timing or convenience, OK, no problem,” agrees Mike Cooper, a 34-year-old doctor in Grand Rapid, Michigan. “It’s about what makes sense more than gender roles.” In fact, Cooper resents women who are attracted to his profession because he wants them to have their own lives, doesn’t want to be used, and wants both people to be able to move on if they break up.
Some women also want to contribute at least as much as their partners so that they’re not reliant on them. “I grew up in a household where my dad dealt with all the money stuff, and it made my mom apprehensive to deal with it herself,” says Liz Sherman, a 29-year-old consultant in Bangalore, India. “I want to be in a position where I am always in control of at least a portion of my money.”
Other women desire financial equality not for strictly feminist reasons but simply because they feel it’s necessary for a healthy relationship. “I like to take turns paying for dates,” says Arianna, a 28-year-old digital marketer in New York. “It’s a much nicer experience for one person to take the check then two people calculating how much they both owe.”
Some men feel the same way. “Spending on a your partner is a sign that you want to take care of them, consider them, want them to be happy,” says Cooper. “As long as it doesn’t become a source of toxicity in the relationship, then great! One person shouldn’t make a habit of leaning on the other. All of these thoughts go both ways.”
This all seems to be less of an issue in LGBTQ relationships, which can perhaps serve as an example for heterosexual ones. “With men, it’s definitely easier because there are no gender/social norms for ‘paying for the other man’ like there is for women,” says Zachary Zane, a 27-year-old journalist in Brooklyn. “The only time it hasn’t been like that is when someone feels like they’re wooing me…who says, ‘I was the person to invite you out, I got this’ and then I’ll say something along the lines of ‘perfect, I’ll grab the bill the next time.’”
But both men and women shared that they couldn’t measure their contributions solely in dollars. After all, if women are contributing as much money to their relationships but still contributing more emotional and household labor, we haven’t made it very far.
“In a romantic relationship, you want to both feel like you are giving and receiving love,” says Alexandra Fine, a 30-year-old business owner in New York. “Contributions don’t have to be financial. There are many things you can give your partner(s).” Perhaps the best indicator of progress, then, is not what portion of the bills people are paying but how much work they’re putting in overall and how they’re arriving at that decision.