Money can be a tricky and awkward conversation topic at the best of times. And whether we like to admit it or not, it affects the dynamic of relationships. So what happens to that dynamic during a pandemic when the workforce is fundamentally changed because of lockdown and many are left as the sole earner or without income?
This is one of those uncomfortable moments when money matters in a whole new way. In many instances, it also exposes the intrinsic link between our finances and gender equality.
Our GLAMOUR Money Matters survey shows that 76% of you would speak to your partner about money above anyone else and 86% of you would be open about how much you earn.
The changes in where money is being earned can have all sorts of effects from putting strain on couples to strengthening them. I spoke to five couples on what life in lockdown is like, when your financial situation drastically changes…
“I’m six months pregnant,” says Katherine, 32, a lawyer, “I am used to being the breadwinner, but now I am deemed too vulnerable to work because of the pandemic and have been put on furloughed leave. My wife is now the main earner – it definitely feels weird.”
Though Katherine says she was mentally preparing for maternity leave, she was not prepared for taking a huge dip in pay, being unable to work at all while still pregnant, or how it would feel having her wife out-earn her.
“The dynamic has really shifted, and it’s been interesting to see things from my wife’s perspective,” she says, “Having to ask for money from her, or ask her to do things, feels weird for me. I thought I would have a baby to care for, not just be sitting here doing nothing and losing money. It’s really frustrating.”
“As frustrating as it is,” Katherine says, “It has made me appreciate how my wife – who works in the charity sector- might feel sometimes with me being the higher earner. I need to be more sensitive to that going forward.”
Although it shouldn’t; the money earned by each party in a relationship can play uncomfortably into the power dynamic of couples. And when one partner suddenly becomes the sole earner, it can be a massive adjustment.
Oscar, 29, is used to the turbulent financial volatility of his career as a freelance filmmaker. His girlfriend has a steady full time job. They live together.
“I’m used to not having a lot of money coming in, and there have been times around Christmas and New Year when film work is usually slow that I’ve had to prepare for it, but there’s a difference between slow work and no work,” he says, “We both put bread on the table before. But now, because the pandemic has shut down all film work, I will have nothing; it won’t be my bread any more!”
It’s an odd adjustment, one that risks putting strain on couples at an already stressful time.
“I’m just grateful one of us is still in employment,” Oscar says, “But now that she is the only one of us earning, I know that has put a lot of pressure on her. She’s terrified of losing her job now.”
Alex, 30, is in a similar situation. He lost his job in March, a direct result of coronavirus cutbacks at his company, and his wife is now the sole breadwinner. Money- and how each of them spend it- is now a conversation in a way it simply never was before.
“My wife has now begun monitoring what I spend on food and booze,” he says, “but actually she was bad for buying so many clothes and going out quite a lot before all this. She would frequently spend a lot more than me each month so we have looked at her cutting down all that spending too. She never used to worry about money but more recently she has been.”
Where once they were both fiercely busy people, now their routines are starkly different.
“She is still working during the day and does get annoyed if I just sit around watching telly,” he says, “She’s a terrible cook so I have always done the cooking, but since I lost my job she very much does expect me to do all the housework now.”
Though much of this can be an unwelcome adjustment, Alex said he is using his downtime to plan his next career move. In the short term, he is applying to be a delivery driver, to give him the ability to bring something of his own to the marital money pot.
Neither Alex or Oscar are, thankfully, bothered by the fact that their female partners now out-earn them. Yet while the traditional male breadwinner and female care-giver template is not an assumed situation anymore, there are still traces of it in the way we approach relationships. Most men expect to earn more (well, hello there Gender Pay Gap) and to fulfil the breadwinner role. There is often a sense of emasculation if they don’t.
While men like Oscar are unfazed by this shift in terms of gender politics, it is often women who feel vulnerable when they find themselves falling into that traditional role thanks to the pandemic.
Laura, 30, was a successful barrister before the pandemic. Now she cannot work at all.
“My husband is a senior manager in the NHS and we have a two year old,” she says, “Clearly from a practical perspective, his job in the NHS takes priority now. We usually manage child care split between my parents and nursery. Our child’s nursery is closed and we can’t use my parents for child care because they are in their 60s, and they care for elderly relatives. I had to stay home.”
Laura suddenly finds herself out of her career, temporarily, and without access to any financial support. As a self-employed barrister she earns just above the threshold to qualify for the government grant and, because her husband is working- she is not entitled to universal credit. While Laura’s family will not starve, the mental impact this has on her wellbeing is significant, as she is suddenly unable to provide anything financial of her own.
“As ambitious people we are both (in part) defined by our careers, and my career is essentially on hold,” she says, “This is particularly difficult with no clear end point. I want to have more children in the future, and will probably have further periods of maternity leave – with consequent hit on my income given the very limited maternity support available to self-employed people. The last thing I want really is an enforced break now. I am worried that I will be left behind. I definitely want to go back to being equal partners.”
Our finances can be intrinsically linked to our equality, and women are already statistically more likely to earn less than men. A recent report from the World Economic Forum shows that the global gender pay gap is still an average of 31.4% – while the UK is 17.3%). Women will already be suffering many of the fiscal and social responsibilities of Covid19- as another WEF report shows women make up the majority of medical caregivers, as well as doing 76.2% unpaid care work.
Women are more likely to be in a low income job or one in the hospitality sector that has been hard hit, or simply that they are more likely to be the ones taking a pay cut in order to stay home and take over childcare. We are disproportionately affected by this crisis, thanks to our financial situation and the role we are still allocated by society.
“Financial independence for women is fundamental to achieving equality,” says Sam Smethers, Fawcett Society Chief Executive, “so for women who have lost their jobs and found themselves in a position of dependency on their partner that puts them in a vulnerable position, particularly if this becomes longer-term.”
This can, of course, have more serious consequences.
“Women who are in abusive or coercive relationships will be particularly vulnerable if they also lose any financial independence they may have,” she says, “This is why the government needs to invest in specialist women’s organisations to give those women a way out.”
Yet for many couples, this lockdown and enforced WFH can prove a positive.
Michelle, 33, has just had a baby. Her husband is on paternity leave but will, once over, be working from home. She works in a travel start-up and is not confident that it will survive the pandemic given how hard the travel industry has been hit by Covid-19.
“I am used to earning my own money and the idea of being unemployed absolutely terrifies me,” she says, “I have never earned less than my husband, I have actually normally out-earned him. Thinking about having to ask him for money makes me feel very strange.”
However, she thinks the team mentality instilled in them by being first-time parents in lockdown has strengthened them as a unit.
“Even if I end up staying home with our baby for awhile, after this is over, there’s no way my husband will ever take that work for granted,” she says, “He’s seen first-hand now just how hard it is with a newborn.”
Oscar agrees, and points to the fact that this shift in dynamic could prove a positive learning experience for many couples.
“We’re more a team than ever. We’re both keeping the flat tidier because we’re not both running out the house in the morning and not in the mood to tidy up in the evening,” he says, “I don’t want to rely on my other half to feed us and I’m naturally as ready as everyone for things to go back to how they used to be. But I’m hopeful we’ll take the positives of that sense of teamwork forward.”