Does Seeking Financial Security Make You a Gold Digger?

It's easy to feel trapped in a relationship where one person is footing the bill.

At 41, Emily badly wanted a baby, so much so that she gave her boyfriend an ultimatum, and they started trying to conceive.

Her boyfriend, a scientist, traveled a lot and kept an emotional distance. "I weighed the pros and cons and decided to go ahead," she says, "even though I doubted I could ever be happy with him."

Her reasoning: He made $300,000.

"I focused on the fact that I would be a good mother and he'd be the provider." She herself earned about $90,000 as an editor, but the job was too demanding to combine with single motherhood. "It was way too scary to do it on my own," she says.

Some would call her a "gold-digger." Others might see themselves in her and recognize her fear.

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Why People Dig
Not so long ago, it was considered sensible for a woman to seek a good provider. Nowadays, we're all expected to pride ourselves on our independence and choose (or mostly choose) someone for love. Any interest in a man's prospects can feel mercenary, despite the still-shaky economy and even though women still earn less than men-77 cents for every dollar. And while college degrees help, they don't close the gap: College-educated women earn five percent less the first year out of college than their male peers, and 10 years later, even if they keep working, 12 percent less. For all the news coverage of the fact that men got hit worse in the latest recession, on balance, men remain ahead.

The term "gold-digger" summons up the image of 22 year olds kissing ancient lips hoping for a fast inheritance. But what do we think about college students entertaining sugar daddies who help cover their tuition? There are more than 50 shades of gray, any number of circumstances in which women (and men) who lack resources enter into relationships they might otherwise not choose. Gold-digging happens when people are greedy but also when they feel trapped.

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Lorraine still cries when she thinks about how she treated a man we'll call Dan. At first they were in love, and she was deeply grateful to him. Dan wasn't attractive, but he was super smart and recognized her intelligence. He encouraged her to go to college, and with his salary as an electrical engineer, he helped her feed the three kids from a previous marriage she bore in her 20s.

Four years later, she'd gained admission to a top Ph.D. program and Dan offered to move with her and her kids from Alabama to Texas. Although she'd won prestigious fellowships, they weren't sufficient, and graduate school was a "full-time job," she says. "I let him move only because I needed him to pay the rent," she says.

By then, love had failed and "I nearly hated him," Lorraine confesses. She lay awake at night agonizing with guilt, and worrying that she wouldn't be able to continue. "I wasn't even nice to him," she says. "I loathed the way he breathed, the way he smelled, the way he held a glass in his hand, the way he ate, " she says. "I have no doubt that this was a projection of my loathing of myself for using him."

Yet Lorraine also says she'd do it again for the sake of her education. "I had teenagers who needed braces, no family to back me up, a huge debt and no child support," she says. After two years, she was able to get a job that she could do while still in school. She asked Dan to leave. Still, he came to her graduation ceremony and told her with tears in his eyes that he was proud of her. "So maybe he got to feel that he did something big for another person-and at a pretty great cost to himself," she says.

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"It was completely against my values," Lorraine says. "Serial gold-diggers who seek out very wealthy men so obviously for the stuff , that's different. I do judge them, but then I also judge him." She adds, "But women who struggle with it, oh I have great, great empathy for them. I understand the pain of it, the cost of it, and I wish no one felt like that was her best option."

When Digging = Humiliation
Ellen Walker, Ph.D., a psychologist in Bellingham, Wash., sees many patients who have become financially dependent and feel stuck in unhappy marriages. "Your self-esteem has been chipped away over time until you find that you're not strong enough to make the moves it takes," says Walker. When the marriage collapses, you can be left without love, cash or confidence.

Dependency can creep up on you even if you weren't looking for an escape hatch. When Hank fell in love with the woman who became the mother of his children, he didn't know she was a trust-fund baby. Although she frequently hinted, "You've hit the jackpot with me," she lived modestly, and her last name didn't reveal her origins. Eventually, the couple decided that Hank would leave a well-paying job in television for a year to help raise the kids.

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But the pair split and he was never able to regain his former income. A month ago, short several hundred on his rent, he had to ask his ex for a loan. "It was depressing and humiliating," he said. "I'm not so sure I hit the jackpot." On the plus side, although he's scratching for cash, he knows his two kids won't ever suffer-both have trust funds set up by lawyers he's never met.

When the "Dug" Has a Dark Side
The irony is that gold-digging, often a bid for security, is a big risk. In the classic greedy scenario, both sides are avoiding intimacy, and they may have little in common except a desire for status. "You can't have a digger without a dug," says San Jose, Calif. psychotherapist Margaret Cochran, Ph.D. Dugs are often narcissists who "see other people as stupid or less competent than they are. Everyone is an object to be manipulated." They turn easily into bullies. Cochran tells the story of a rich client who punched his "arm-candy" girlfriend in the nose because she searched the glove compartment of his car without permission.

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Along with bullying, bribery is part of the game. Amy met her boyfriend, Jack, who was 20 years older, in a support group for the disabled. Although they became close friends, their disabilities interfered with their sex and she lost interest. One day, Jack, who has no children, told her that he'd named her as his beneficiary on a $1 million account. That kept her in the relationship for another year and a half, she confesses. She lives on disability payments, some of which will stop in her 60s.

But then he began pushing to live together, and offered to pay for an apartment that would be solely in her name. He'd keep his own home, he said, so they could get "space" during conflicts.

"I almost did it for the apartment," she says. She ended up breaking up while promising to "be there" whenever he needed her. Jack still frequently calls her asking for help related to his disability, and jokes about the fact that he hasn't "taken her name off his account"-yet.

The deal-part-time caregiving in exchange for an inheritance-isn't explicit. He could change his beneficiary at any time and not tell her. Would she be angry? "Yes, and I don't have the integrity to talk to him about it directly," Amy confesses. "But I'd still help him."

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Digging Into the Future
To answer the question, "Are you a gold-digger?" take the other person's point of view. Often they're somewhat clued in to your terms. "As long as the other person gets something too and feels like the deal is fair, you're not using them," Lorraine says. "Also, you know how good it feels to take care of someone, so that's something to gain, too."

Hank, who is studying political science, sees marriage returning to its origins. "For millennia, marriage was primarily an economic relation. The privileged could afford romance. Then democracy spread, and the poorer in western industrial democracies found themselves enjoying some of the benefits the wealthy had previously had entirely to themselves. Now we are losing ground."

Put starkly-rich man vs. poor man-how many of us would choose strictly for love? Walker knows two friends, one an actor, who is "poor as a church mouse and lives in rented rooms," and a multi-millionaire entrepreneur. Although the actor is better looking and a better conversationalist, his girlfriend left him for the entrepreneur. "It's just common sense," she says.

- by Temma Ehrenfeld