Diapers and Dragons

Monday, June 28, 2010

Not For Sale

A Cherry Coke, a Mountain Dew, and a bag of chocolate Donettes: $5.57 after tax, and he had four dollars cash in his pocket, his wallet left behind on the car seat. So I pulled out money from my purse, then realized I'd placed three dollars in the cashier's hand and snatched back one. I was about to replace it in my wallet when I stopped and put it in his hand instead.

I felt a bit odd about it--both the instinct to take it back and the decision to give it to him. I didn't look at his face, so couldn't tell if it struck him as odd or not. He did place the dollar in his pocket.

Three dollars. He paid for the pizza and salad and drinks we had for dinner, the movie tickets, the gas that powered his car. He generally does. I contribute financially in other ways. Grocery runs. A trip to McD's with our combined children. Helping out with the road trip costs. It's not like he carries the burden alone.

So why did I feel strange about placing that bill in his hand?

Perhaps because it was such a small amount. Perhaps because I was physically placing the money in his hand. Who knows? The moment passed and we moved on.

The memory revisits me tonight. The commerce of relationships. My mind flickers back to my brief flirtation with playing the field on casual dates. A few different men, a few different dates, all financed by them. I always carried my card and cash with me, just in case, as any wise woman would, but both parties went in assuming (as it turned out each time) that he would pay the costs of the evening.

So what did I contribute? The pleasure of my company? Some good conversation, a little light flirtation, a smile, a laugh? There wasn't physical "compensation" for their evening's investment, that's certain. If they anticipated such a thing, they hid their expectations well. And I? I didn't have to spend much on groceries for a little while.

Sounds cynical, doesn't it, put in those cold and impersonal words?

Romance is ancient enough, but relationships--particularly marriages--have long been based on commercial grounds, even when love was (and is) involved. Think back over the long history of human culture, all over the world. Examine contemporary practices, again all over the world. Dowries and marriage contracts, prenuptial agreements and insurance beneficiaries: the many and varied financial arrangements that wrap relationships in strings of silver and green and gold.

I taught Pride and Prejudice to my juniors this last year. We spent some time discussing the financial realities of marriage in that time period. "Gold digger" was the label many of the students attached to one character, Charlotte Lucas, who enters a marriage with the pompous, ridiculous Mr. Collins because she knows he will provide her with a solid financial and social position. In the (quite romanticized but rather excellent) film starring Keira Knightley, Charlotte tells Elizabeth Darcy that she "cannot afford to be romantic"--unlike Elizabeth, who refused Mr. Collin's proposal. And in the book, although Charlotte is not particularly fond of her husband (though quite good at making him obliviously happy), she is apparently quite pleased with her lot.

But she married him for money! one student protested. She doesn't even love him!

Well, yes, I responded. And when we see people, particularly women, who will be with someone just because they have money, we do call them "gold diggers". But let me put it in a different context. Keep in mind that women in that day and age were quite dependent upon men to provide them with stability, unless they had unusually excellent social rank and independent wealth. What if today we looked at a women who was widowed or abandoned, with several small children, and little ability to support them? What if she met a man who wanted to marry her and take care of her children, and although she did not love him, she was willing to do her best to make him happy in exchange? Would you call her a gold digger?

Well, no, they admitted. But that's different!

And it is, from a certain ethical standpoint. It still doesn't match our ideal of true love.

How many relationships do? And does the presence of that commercial aspect automatically contaminate the purity of the love that exists? What contracts do we create, on paper or in our minds, that govern our relationships? Are they financial? Physical? Emotional?

They vary for each situation, I know. There are the couples where one person contributes the money and the other contributes...well, that depends. Time spent raising children. Keeping house. Companionship. Sex. Other couples both contribute money and divvy other responsibilities between them. Others--well, others have their contracts people on the outside simply cannot comprehend.

If the couple is healthy, whatever arrangement is made works for them and they are content, happy, fulfilled.

If not...Well, we've all seen the many forms dysfunction can take and the varied roads those couples travel. Some of us have been there, walked that.

Too often the dysfunction lies with the calculations. What is the give; what is the take? What concepts do we have of what is obligated by each party? What are the expectations and how well do they match? How much do I have to give and how much can I get?

Ah, and there's the rub. There's the greedy, selfish, ugly-side-of-capitalism twist of relationship commerce. There's where "don't be a doormat" deforms into "don't let him/her get the better of me." There's where love distorts into manipulation.

A woman told me some time ago that the best advice she ever got on marriage came from the man installing the new carpet in her house.

How much do you think each person needs to put into the marriage to make it work? he asked her.

Fifty-fifty, she replied.

Nope, he said. It's one hundred - one hundred. Each person has to put in everything, without expecting the other person to meet them halfway. If you don't commit fully, it'll never work fully.

A relationship comes down to more than how many dollars we each put in. It has to go beyond whose turn it is to do the dishes or take out the garbage or pick up groceries or take the kids to appointments. When we start keeping our mental tallies and budgets, when we start begrudging little things like back rubs and bigger things like who's paying the bills, when we start looking for what we can get instead of seeking for what we can give...

...then we're holding back more than our "share." We're holding back our hearts.

Love isn't a contract. My heart isn't a commodity. It is a gift, and by giving it away I get far more in return than any sale could ever bring.

15 bits of love:

Brenda said...

Wow! That last line...very very true!

PantsWithNames said...

Fab post, so very true. That carpet fitter was a wise man indeed.

michelle said...

Really interesting post. I love trying to figure this stuff out. When I'm stuck for understanding, I go back to the wooly mammoth.

Why in this day and age when many women are financially independent do, men still pull out their wallets first?

Perhaps men are hardwired to show their ability to PROVIDE. It's like colorful plumage and big muscles. And we, as women, are hardwired for that ability to provide to be a total turn-on.

Just a thought. Thanks for getting me thinking this morning

michelle said...

Oh. And I absolutely agree that when couples start keeping tallies of who's doing more and who's not doing enough, trouble is on the way

Arby said...

“Why in this day and age when many women are financially independent do, men still pull out their wallets first?”

Because men are supposed to. A man who allows a woman to pay on a date is a jerk, and we all know it. He knows it. His buddies know it. The woman who pays knows it, and so do her friends. He can get his man card revoked. Women who strongly disagree and insist that there is nothing wrong with allowing them to pay either do not understand the rules or they do not accept them. But, a man who allows himself to be put in that situation is a man who can be ruled by the woman he is dating. He’s weak. Much later in the dating process a man can allow a woman to pay, but it happens once. It is a novelty. They immediately return to the man-pay rule. There is an undefined moment later on in the relationship where the lines begin to blur, but it happened after the relationship has been established. She can buy a few small things as long as they do not come close to the purchase price of the evening.

Those are the rules for dating.

Katie said...

Wow. That is sage advice from the carpet installer.
And really true.
This is a very inspirational post.
My marriage thanks you.

Tim Riley said...

I love the sage carpet guy-great post!

Monica said...


mom said...

Top marks, kiddo! Yes, the carpet layer had it right; it's something I heard from someone else years ago, and have tried to live by. It's true, that once you're married, if you have to keep tallies and accounts it becomes a see-saw, always tottering. But it is a learning curve! (And what Arby described is a cultural description of the "rules" of dating in America. Just so you know, though, if the man is poor, and so is the woman, you share a lot more of the load from the start. Speaking from experience.)

Ed Pilolla said...

beautifully summed up: the commerce of relationships. money has nothing to do with it, but it can also screw a lot of things up.

Anonymous said...

try the A & E version of Pride and Prejudice . . . it's excellent!

Draft Queen said...

Money. One of the bigger things to ever screw up an otherwise fabulous relationship.

Personally, I couldn't care less what the hell he buys me or doesn't. I'm not about that.

GingerB said...

Hmmm, stop that making me think about myself thing. Who says I can't tally up the vastly more important time and effort I contribute and lord it over the husband?!?

Jodie at Mummy Mayhem said...

Fantastic post. I really enjoyed reading this and you made some wonderful through-provoking points.

Anonymous said...

Great post! When MuttonChopsHubby and I were engaged, one of his friends asked us how we were going to handle the finances, he asked if we would each get to spend or control the percentage of our income that we each earned (i.e. if I earned 70%, and MCH earned 30% of our dual income, I'd get to choose how 70% of it was spent). I was astounded that anyone would think that's how marriage finances work. It still shocks me (he just got married, I hope he's learned about the 100%/100% thing by now!)
- SoccerSister
P.S. A&E version of P&P IS way better, but probably too long to show to an English class! I couldn't stand the Keira Knightly one after loving A&E's for so long - it felt like all the actors were just trying to copy the A&E expressions, but not really BEING those characters.

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