In a modern relationship, it's all about the balance of power, says Aaron Traister. REDBOOK.
An unusual thing happened in my house recently: My wife, Karel, and I came into a windfall. (Losing money is our regular M.O.) Somehow, this happy reversal of fortune led to an unpleasant disagreement. Karel wanted to use the money to pay off our credit card debt, while I wanted to fix the many problems in our kitchen, starting with the gaping hole in the ceiling. It was a mighty battle between two well-armed combatants. Neither of us gave an inch, and ultimately we reached a stalemate. The next morning, I asked the guy who sells me my morning coffee (he also doubles as my marriage consigliere) what we should do. I should have expected the response I got, since he's the type of guy who still refers to women as "broads." He answered my question with a question: "Who wears the pants in your family?"
"Well," I told him honestly, "it depends."
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For old-school guys like my consigliere, it was so easy. Back in the day, the divisions of labor and responsibility were clearly defined: Mom ran the home and raised the kids; Dad went to work, handled the money, and had the final word. There is a part of me that longs for that man-of-the-house era, because the label came with a finite set of responsibilities, while 21st-century living is all flux and negotiation. In our marriage, and in most, we're both responsible for paying the bills, as well as cleaning the toilet bowl. My coffee consigliere wouldn't like hearing this, but nowadays it's not about who wears the pants. It's about finding the most comfortable way to share the pants. And yes, we all look and feel a little silly at times. But these rules have helped Karel and me find balance. Maybe they'll help you.
Whoever is smarter with money should handle it. Period. I've known guys who manage the family's money because they think it's a "man's job," even when it's clear their wives are better equipped to run the finances. My friend James and his wife, Gail, have a fairly traditional division of labor: He goes to work; she takes care of the house and the kids. (James would punch me in the face if I didn't also mention that he does his share of diaper-changing, cooking, and cleaning.) Yet Gail is the money person in the couple. That's not to say James would blow all their savings on bourbon and betting on NASCAR races, but Gail thinks long-term and is more disciplined when it comes to spending. It's the same at our house: Karel and I earn roughly the same amount, but she's in charge of the cash because she can very clearly demonstrate why her financial plans work better than mine. Mostly it's because they don't involve investing in old comic books.
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Let him handle some "wife stuff." Working from home and taking care of our kids during the day, I spend a lot of time around the house. That's made me more invested in how our place looks. From vacuuming to furniture feng shui to choosing art for the walls, the house has become my canvas... or Thunderdome, depending on how you look at it. Karel tried to fight it at first--she clung to the idea that decorating was somehow her genetic responsib ility--but her vision for our home was muddled. Eventually, she had to admit that I have a very clear point of view, decor-wise, and a real eye for vintage. (Just to give you an idea, my home looks like a cross between my grandparents' Maine farmhouse and a car garage from the 1920s. And you're right, Karel is a very lucky lady.) If your guy shows interest in getting in touch with his inner Martha Stewart, let him. It'll take stuff off your plate. Imagine never planning another child's birthday party again! So what if they all have a monster-truck theme? Is that really a bad thing?
Switch off playing bad cop. I've seen a lot of parents who work full time avoid disciplining their children, because no one wants to spend the limited hours they have with their kids yelling at them. Ultimately, those children wind up doing terrible things to the family dog. Being a stay-at-home dad is probably the reason I'm more comfortable disciplining the kids than Karel is. I can't tell you the number of times she's turned to me when the kids are acting crazy and said, "I just got home from work and I don't want to have to holler at them." My advice for two-income families: Alternate months playing bad cop. When it's your turn to be the disciplinarian, your kids won't love you any less. I yell at my kids all the time and they still think I'm a pretty cool dad.
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It took Karel and me years (as well as a few blowout fights) to shed our preconceived ideas about what our relationship should look like. Once we learned that our marriage wasn't going to conform to some established model, it all got a lot easier. So if you are wondering, here's what we did with our modest windfall: We paid off our credit card debt. Not because Karel wears the pants, but because in the long run, she was right.
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