This essay is a preview of a Modern Love project on the intersection of money and relationships. More stories in this project will appear next week.
The moment I knew I would never again have a joint bank account, I was driving home in a hard rain with a small butterscotch lollipop in my mouth.
I would take the sweetness where I could find it. Nearly an hour before, I had logged in to the savings account I shared with my husband to discover that half of the savings had been withdrawn in one chunk, right after the last big argument my husband and I had.
I called him, and I’ll never forget what he said: His lawyer had recommended it.
He was a lawyer — and now he had a lawyer? This was also a shock. I hung up, wiped the mess of mascara from under my eyes, and drove through the rain to our local bank to withdraw the rest, my two children oblivious in the back seat.
When I left, clutching courtesy lollipops for us three, I knew my marriage was over. I knew I would need to use my half of the savings to hire a lawyer. And I vowed — a loaded verb choice, I know, given the context — never to be financially dependent on a man again.
In my marriage, I had been happy to say, “I’m not great with this stuff,” as I handed the financial responsibilities to my husband. I had outsourced my financial security to him, someone I trusted — and in doing that, I had disadvantaged myself.
Divorce was always going to be heartbreaking, but it didn’t have to be panic-inducing — and it was. What kept me awake, and what woke me in the middle of the night — sweating, heart racing — was fear. I was a poet and he was a litigator. It seemed impossible that I would be able to stay in the house. Even if by some miracle I did, how would I pay the mortgage, the utilities and the taxes each month? (And how much were our taxes, anyway? I had no idea.) I wasn’t sure how I would even afford the divorce itself. I knew all about billable hours from my husband, but this time I was the one being billed.
From that day forward, I was determined to become the adult I wished I had been in my marriage, to be the C.F.O. of my own life.
It’s empowering to know what’s in my accounts, even if I don’t always love the numbers. My short-term alimony ended a couple of years ago, but I’m still receiving child support. It helps, in addition to my income from writing, teaching, editing and public speaking. It’s empowering to pay my own bills and see where the money is going. It’s empowering to meet with my financial adviser, even if my outlook for retirement is grim. The stress of knowing is preferable to the stress of not knowing. At least if I have the information, I can act on my own behalf.
Nearly two years after that bewildering evening at the bank, I started a new relationship. In the beginning, when my boyfriend would bring over a pizza, I would immediately Venmo him half the cost. Same for a box of doughnuts on a Saturday morning. He would roll his eyes — “Maggie, are you kidding me with this $8 Venmo?” — but if he was genuinely frustrated by my need to keep things separate and equal, he didn’t show it.
I think he understood that after my marriage, the pendulum had swung wide in the opposite direction, from too much dependence to, perhaps, too much independence.
My boyfriend, it’s worth noting, is a social worker. He helps people manage their trauma, substance abuse issues and anxiety. He understood that I was doing what I needed to feel safe.
I talk openly with him, and with my own therapist, about the grief and cognitive dissonance of my divorce and the impact it’s had on me. As a self-employed writer with sole custody of two school-age children, I feel like a one-woman band. Picture Bert, Dick Van Dyke’s chimney sweep character, at the beginning of “Mary Poppins.” That’s me, cymbals attached to my knees, big bass drum on my back, a vest of horns, a tambourine dangling and an accordion in my hands.
There are some days I tell myself that my ability to manage so much on my own should be a source of pride, and that my insistence upon self-reliance is healthy. It’s good for me to know I can stand on my own two feet. Other days, I wonder if the pendulum has swung too far. I’ve Googled “hyper-independence,” and I’ve watched the autofill provide a list of phrases that seems to call me out: “hyper-independence trauma response,” “hyper-independence coping mechanism,” “hyper-independence betrayal trauma.”
The truth is, I do have trust issues, and it’s hard for me to let go of my white-knuckled hold on life. There have been times when I’ve made my boyfriend feel unimportant and have pushed him away. Feeling needed makes someone feel secure in a relationship — and here I am, trying not to need him.
I hire a babysitter for my children when I travel for work, knowing he would happily be here with them. I’m all too aware of the power dynamics that can exist around finances, work and caregiving. I don’t want to fall into the same patterns, married or not, living together or not.
It’s important for me to keep my wants and needs separate. To say, through my actions: I’m in this relationship because I want to be in it, not because I need to be.
After my divorce, my friend Kelly asked, “What’s your top priority now in one word?”
I answered immediately: “Autonomy. What about you?” She and her son’s father had divorced years earlier.
“Community,” she said.
We laughed about how these feel like opposite impulses — one for care and connection, the other for self-sustenance and independence. But they’re not opposite at all. One can be deeply connected to their community and have close relationships with others, but also remain self-sustaining. I believe this.
I think back to the months my husband and I spent in couples counseling, and how hard I had fought to save the marriage. I wanted to keep our family intact for the children, but also a lot of the scramble was about fear. That heart-racing, middle-of-the-night fear: How could I possibly make it on my own?
I’m ashamed to think of that woman now, the one who was so afraid, so dependent and so ignorant about her own finances. I’m ashamed to admit that for a time I tolerated dishonesty and unkindness because the alternative, the one-woman band, felt worse.
It isn’t worse. I don’t always love playing all the instruments myself, but I do trust myself to play them. Is that a hyper-independent, hypervigilant thing to say? I’m working on all of this in therapy, and I do think I’m learning to trust and rely more on others. I still worry about money — retirement, the children’s college tuition, my hundred-year-old house — but I’m not panicking because I know my financial situation.
Now when my boyfriend and I go out, we split the bill, or we take turns — he buys lunch at the vegan cafe, and Chinese takeout is my treat. I don’t Venmo him after he sends me flowers or brings me coffee. There is a difference between kind acts — sharing, giving — and relying on each other. It’s the reliance that still spooks me.
If someone asked me what my priority is in one word, I’d still say, “autonomy.” Being autonomous doesn’t mean being a lone wolf or refusing help. It means building a life in which my ability to do my work and support myself does not depend on romantic partnership.
I need to know that I can thrive on my own, but I also want to love, trust and feel connected. It’s a balance I’m trying to get right. Perhaps the pendulum is swinging back to the center.
I still have a babysitter for my children when I travel for work, but I’m trying not to be rigid about it. My boyfriend always offers to help, and I tend to wave him off with, “I’ve got it.” But recently he stayed here with my children for a night while I was out of town. I knew they were safe, well-fed (my boyfriend’s vegetable curry is legendary) and laughing at his terrible dad jokes.
When I returned (and as I expected, found a huge container of leftover curry in the fridge), I reconsidered the metaphor I’ve been using to describe my life. I don’t have to be a one-woman band. I can be autonomous and still hand off an instrument now and then — the accordion, trumpet, harmonica — and trust him to play.
What will that music sound like? I’m listening.