It was about a decade ago that John and I first had significant marriage problems. At that point we’d been married for 7 years and as John was climbing the corporate ladder, he seemed increasingly frustrated with having married so young. We had two small children at home and John was the breadwinner while I was a stay-at-home-Mom. I was literally tied to our home given that John took our only car to work everyday and we didn’t live near anywhere that I could walk to to catch a bus or shop. My entire world revolved around supporting him and caring for the kids. So when things got a bit rocky with John, I was completely dependent and vulnerable. I’d never had any jobs that paid much more than minimum wage. I had a science degree but no lab experience to turn that degree into a marketable skill. I had no savings of my own, no retirement money, nothing.
It was just about then that some things started to change in our family. We had to buy a second car so I could drive the kids to school, which gave me a huge increase in autonomy. I started taking classes at a local community college. I began to think seriously about applying to graduate school.
While I can’t say for sure that my aims for advanced education were motivated by the fear that John and I would eventually split up, I think I can say that I knew I needed more security “just in case.” I opened a Roth IRA and began depositing money into it each month. I stopped thinking so much like Martha Stewart and took on Laurel Ulrich as my role model instead–thinking that even if it took me twice as long as anyone else to finish my graduate degree, at least I would have it eventually. I began thinking far more pragmatically about money and my future. Once I was in graduate school I began applying (perhaps rather ruthlessly) for as much funding as possible. I wanted to ensure that I didn’t end up finishing my PhD with a significant amount of debt, knowing that that would only increase my dependence rather than decrease it.
So maybe it’s no surprise that when I initially revealed to a friend that John was leaving me, one of the first things I said was how glad I was that I had a job! It’s so empowering to know that I won’t be financially dependent on John for child support, health insurance, or alimony. For the first time ever, my income is larger than John’s. I still feel quite vulnerable in today’s economy–and I know it won’t be easy to support the kids on my salary. But I think I knew, perhaps even subconsciously, that I never wanted to be in that same awkward and dependent position again as I was when I first feared that we would split up. It’s undoubtedly what’s kept me so aggressively focused on my educational and professional goals these past few years.
A friend mentioned to me that when we feel powerless over the romantic aspect of our lives, we often try to take control of the financial part–because that’s one thing we can do when the rest is out of control. That makes a lot of sense to me. And I’m so glad that I did this so I’m not left in a financially vulnerable position now.