Washington - When my then-boyfriend ended our relationship, I never expected him to say it was because I was too poor.
There are many reasons he could have given for breaking up: The spark was gone. He was no longer attracted to me. My habit of singing Muppet songs in the shower is indisputably weird. Instead, he said the one thing that managed to tap into all of my long-held insecurities.
"I want someone who can keep up with me," he said.
We'd spent the entire summer together traveling to various music festivals and had just returned from a two-week whirlwind vacation to Los Angeles and Palm Springs. What more did he want?
Noticing my confusion, he added, "financially. You just don't make as much money as I do."
I was in my early 30s at the time, making $35 000 to $40 000 a year as a freelancer; he was in his mid-40s, earning in the low six figures. We were both responsible with our finances; I just made significantly less than he did. This didn't seem to be an issue, until it was.
We had several discussions about money during our eight months together. While he enjoyed treating me to fancy dinners and concert tickets, we agreed to split everything else 50-50. Our relationship wasn't perfect, but I thought when it came to our finances, we were okay. In this sense, the breakup blindsided me.
Money is a tender point for many people. "Our income, career, debt and relationship with money all come from an emotional place," says Alysha Jeney, a therapist in Denver. "For many of us, our sense of identity is wrapped up in our roles and finances."
As Jeney explains: "If we misunderstand this about our partner, we can easily become fixated on the amount of income that they generate, versus understanding their intention, their values and emotional experience in the context of work and income."
It's easy to make these kinds of assumptions because modern relationships have a great deal to do with what economists call "consumption compatibilities," according to Marina Adshade, author of "The Love Market: What You Need to Know About How We Date, Mate and Marry." "Whereas in the past, relationships were almost exclusively about building a home and having a family, today they are also about taking trips together, eating in restaurants, etc.," Adshade says.
In my relationship, my boyfriend and I had completely different lifestyle expectations. He loved any experience that had the letters VIP attached to it, while I'm more of a taco truck kind of person. Because of this, I always felt as if I had to defend my choices to a partner who didn't necessarily value them.
In reality, we just had different consumption habits. "If you want to go on a holiday and have a five-star experience, and your partner wants to backpack and eat at food trucks, you are not going to be very compatible, or at least not very consumption compatible," Adshade says.
When it comes to navigating relationships where there's a clear income discrepancy, Jeney advises couples to "stop focusing on the amount of income one makes, and start focusing on your core values in a relationship. Are those aligned?"
Jeney encourages couples to "communicate about these values before you even consider each other's financial contributions and see them as additional factors instead." Even if it means having a frank and uncomfortable discussion about how one of you really feels about eating at that new taco truck downtown.
Since my relationship with my VIP-obsessed boyfriend ended, I've taken a more value-centric approach to assessing potential new partners.
If someone likes to eat out and travel, how do they approach these experiences? What was their upbringing like? Will they wince every time I use a coupon? I'm less interested in their net worth and more curious about their overall relationship to money and whether it's compatible with mine.