This post has been updated for 2022.
I anonymized a few details from this writer’s letter, but not many, because a lot of this email is about horses. What am I supposed to say — the writer is training llamas? Mastodons? Groundhogs? You cannot ride a groundhog.
I’m 23, I work as a contractor, and I have a boyfriend and — oh man — two horses. On the side, I do art/photography modeling, dogsitting, or a couple hours of gardening for my mom’s awesome self-started landscaping business (she is the most Bullish woman I know). I’m also paid to ride another boarder’s horse for her.
I have a contract until next year, maybe longer, and I’m making enough money to pay my student and car loans and other bills. I also pay my parents a small rent to stay in their house and eat their delicious food.
I feel good about my situation: I have a full-time job I like and I’m applying for others. I’m paying off my debts, I have a beautiful young horse I’m training myself, and I can still go online and buy some silly dress if I want to. I have $2,000 in my savings account. I have planned, saved, and paid for a one-week trip to Spain with my two best friends in August, which I am so pumped about. But here’s where things get rough.
I see my boyfriend about three or four times a week. Due to his very erratic sleep schedule and the fact that I am constantly running around, it’s often very late when we see each other and I’m tired at the end of the day. We have been together for three years. I love him. But he feels:
1) I am putting him on the back burner
2) I’m working too hard for the money I make
3) I should change how I am living my life
I’m frustrated that my boyfriend doesn’t see things the way I do, but at the same time I’m sympathetic to his feelings and I want to make him happy. He’s leaving for Morocco for two months and I admit that I haven’t been spending as much time with him as I should have. I just don’t know how to compromise on this: if I stop taking extra gigs, I lose my extra income (I would say the work I do on the side makes me about $150-250 a month, which for me, is no small thing). I refuse to see my horses less than three times a week. Honestly, I think I’d just feel frustrated and resentful of him if I did everything he wanted me to. How can I make him happy and also up my Bullish game at the same time?
First off, congratulations!
You have multiple income streams and are paying off your debts without burning yourself out. And you’re living with your parents in a responsible way (paying rent, being a pleasant and thankful adult!)
Also, thank you for mentioning real numbers in your email. I’m always fond of sharing real dollar figures, as it helps others get some context for their own situations.
Now, on to business. Should you slow down your career and prioritize your man?
I have been on both sides of this conundrum!
I was once dating an ambitious young … er … detective. I said, “Hey, you are always working, and even when we go out together, you’re secretly investigating a case, so you always pick where we’re going. This relationship is not satisfying any of my needs. At all.”
And he said, “Yes, but that’s what my job requires.” He said it sort of like how a lot of upper-middle class kids could get their parents to pay for anything by saying, “I NEED TO HAVE THIS OBJECT FOR SCHOOL,” because, when you’re a kid, “school” trumps other considerations.
I said, “Well, then I guess your job is not compatible with having a relationship with me. There are minimum requirements to this, just as there are with jobs.”
He was stunned. Surely I would take whatever crumbs were left over after he burnt everything in sacrifice to the demanding career gods! He tried to argue that, obviously, I wanted a boyfriend with a good career. I said, “We’re not married, and success in your career is more about fame than money. Your career success doesn’t benefit me.”
We broke up.
About five years later when I met my fiance — and realized that he was awesome, as well as serious about looking for a life partner — I took off some weekends. In my main profession — teaching classes to adult students — evenings and weekends are when all the action happens, so taking off weekends results in a massive pay cut.
When the manager who books the classes offered me some work for the upcoming months and I responded, “No, thank you!”, she was confused, and asked why. I told her I “wanted to date men with normal jobs.” She laughed.
There was actually just one man with a normal job in the picture, and we got engaged. (See Bullish Life: I’m Engaged! What I Learned from 20 Years of Dating.)
I probably lost $5,000 in income getting to know my fiance. But it wasn’t some crazy sacrifice — it was really fun. We had a lot of brunch. It was like a little honeymoon, which is way more fun than a wedding anyway.
Also, I was 33, had no debts, and obviously I survived without that $5,000.
I wrote (semi-satirically) in a column about financial planning for motherhood that, in America, one needs to make twice as much as one needs to live on — in some kind of flexible and self-directed career — so that when you have a baby, you can make half as much and be okay.
Now, I’m not assuming that you want to get married and/or have kids. I’m just saying that there’s a reason I’m always trying to convince young women of the urgency of making more money, and that reason is to have options and freedom. I wish this country were different,
It’s hard to know exactly what your future gentlewomanly self will want, but she will certainly want to have choices, which money helps provide. Life is also full of emergencies and loss. Having money helps you to not have to think about money during times when you need to fix an emergency, care for someone, or deal with grief. Or, if nothing bad happens to you, you can endow a scholarship somewhere. There’s not exactly a downside.
So, having had ten years to double (or more) my income and build up an emergency fund, I was delighted to take several thousand dollars worth of time off for a guy who was pretty clear about wanting a future with me. Keep in mind, I was able to locate this guy by writing an OKCupid ad that said, “Please be content with the fact that your youth is over.” (See Bullish Life: How I Met My Soon-To-Be Husband on OKCupid.)
The guys who cost me money throughout my twenties, though — yes, I regret letting that happen.
(See Bullish: Picking a Boyfriend Who Doesn’t Hold Back Your Career Or Bank Account.)
When Should You Sacrifice Income for a Man?
I think I’ve worked this out:
1) If he has cancer (for example) and you are taking care of him.
2) If he makes serious and largely irrevocable changes in his life for the purpose of enticing you to build a future together.
3) If you don’t need the money and he’s such a ridiculous amount of fun that it’s worth it for your own pleasure, regardless of what happens in the future.
I think that covers it. You can substitute other grievous situations for “cancer,” but things like “a job would eat into my video game time” or “being sad about my art history degree” really don’t count.
Let’s Make a Cheesy Slogan About How “Compromise” Has “Promise” In It
Okay, so your boyfriend wants you to take a pay cut to spend time with him. How, exactly, is he willing to change his lifestyle to spend time with you?
For instance, what’s up with his “erratic sleep schedule”? Is that because he is an emergency room physician, or because he sometimes watches Anchorman for the fifty-sixth time, beginning at 1:30am? Does he not know how alarm clocks work? Does he have terrible insomnia? Is he a trucker? A brilliant artist who only works when inspiration strikes him? Does he just “need to be free, man”?
Also, say you take some time off for the next couple of months, and it costs you $500. Has he ever spent $500 on you? Or sacrificed an equivalent amount of income?
Is he willing to get up and go to bed at different or more regular hours in order to compromise?
Could he meet you for lunch breaks somewhere?
Could he come along to see the horses? (I don’t know how horses work.)
Men and Women Often “Negotiate” Differently (Guess Who Loses!)
In my experience with a lot of men, when they ask for something, they are not asking for what they think is fair; they are asking for what they want. Thinking about what you want is your responsibility.
That’s not a criticism of men. Just an often-played-out pattern. You’re thinking, “Oh, this thing he wants must be what is best for our relationship,” and he’s thinking, “I’m being honest about what I want. If she agrees, she must want the same thing.”
Men do not, in general, think it is their job to think about what is really going on with you when you agree to do what they want.
(Obviously, not everyone conforms to these gender stereotypes. Thankfully. It’s honestly painful to write this sort of “a lot of men are like this and a lot of woman are like that,” but my experience has been that some patterns hold stupidly true even in 2022 and it seems a disservice not to share that information.)
Some Men Just Want You to Service Them
Some men just want to be serviced. That’s all that’s going on — it’s not more complicated than that. These men want company and sex and possibly cooking and someone to watch movies on the couch with and all kinds of normal human things, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s all that’s going on — they want those things and want you to give them. Period.
Just because someone genuinely enjoys your company doesn’t mean he isn’t using you. People can be just as selfish about fulfilling their needs for companionship as they can be about fulfilling their needs for sex. If he is enjoying your company to the detriment of your own goals — that is, he is getting what he wants now, at the expense of your future happiness — then you are being used.
If what you really want is to write a novel, and your boyfriend knows this, and yet every time you sit down to write, he says, “Let’s go out to dinner,” or “The Witcher is on,” that is not love. That is some controlling, selfish behavior cloaked in plausible deniability (“All I want to do is spend time with my girlfriend.”)
The Dude Baseline
You also mentioned that your boyfriend thinks you work too hard for your money.
Now, that’s interesting. Is he just unimaginative and unambitious? Or is he better at making money than you are?
It’s been my experience that there is a sort of Dude Baseline below which men, in general, will not stoop – in part because no one really asks them to. My women friends are often taking internships for free and doing weird projects just to get their names out there and assisting wealthy or famous people in exchange for “connections,” and many men meet these activities with the response, “You did what for free?”
Sometimes, they are right. In Bullish: Are You Thinking Too Small?, I said, “Don’t settle for anything that would embarrass a stereotypical man.” (Think of the last shitty offer you got. “Oh, this unpaid internship will give you great experience … in the self-storage industry of Fayetteville.” Would whoever said that to you say it to a straight-up bro?)
Why does your boyfriend think you work too hard for your money? Is it because he is lazy and entitled? That’s no good.
Or, is it because he is rightfully embarrassed for you, and you should charge more? Then, do so! Could you raise your rates until you effectively give yourself some time off?
If you are doing things below the Dude Baseline — things no typical dude would agree to do — please make sure you’re doing them wisely. Sometimes, working for free is a great way to make connections. Sometimes, a second job pulling weeds for minimum wage is perfect, because it’s nice to be outside after a day in the office, and you really don’t have the mental power left to spend that time making money in a more cerebral way. Also, if you want to start your own business(es) someday, doing lots of weird odd jobs is a fantastic way to get ideas, see how business is done at different levels and in different industries, and meet a wide variety of people.
Sometimes, the back burner is exactly where a relationship belongs.
Especially when you’re 23. (But not always.)
Is this guy offering to arrange his life around you, and just waiting for you to reciprocate? Keep in mind that even if this is the case — and he’s a total gem — accepting this offer still may not be right for you.
You need to have a conversation with this guy in which you make clear:
- It is natural that your lifestyle at 23 would be different than your lifestyle at 20, when you two started dating.
- Your lifestyles will contain to change throughout the various stages of life, and it’s important to think about the future and how you will mutually adjust to each others’ changing needs.
- Your goals make you happy. His keeping you from them would make you unhappy, even if spending more time together would be pleasurable in the moment.
- You are willing to try to work this out, but you can’t be the only one making sacrifices, because:
a) It’s not fair
b) You would resent it all the damn time
c) Have you ever tried to have sex with a woman who resents you all the damn time? Does that really sound fun?
(If there comes a point when you’re pretty sure all is lost, you might as well speak the truth, no matter how much it freaks the guy out. For instance: “If we get married, my debts become your debts. Either I pay them now, or we pay them together later, once more interest has accrued, or else you don’t care because you think we’ll break up before then. So … which?”)
Maybe he’s just a sweet guy who didn’t realize where you’re coming from. Maybe he’s a sweet guy who just wants to live a more relaxed lifestyle, permanently, in which case maybe this won’t work out. Maybe you’ve outgrown him. Maybe he’s lovely but not for you. Maybe he’s the love of your life, but, if so … would you have written to me? Or maybe he is the love of your life and really just needs to have this conversation.
Also, your mom sounds awesome, and she knows a lot more about your boyfriend than I do. What does she think?
Good luck! And if you end up breaking up and working harder than anyone around you can really understand, well … welcome to the club. We’re nice and can afford good scotch and will spend our sixties taking up hobbies that haven’t even been invented yet, because compound interest is awesome.