Who Pays?

Going Dutch: Dating in the Age of the Female Breadwinner

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After the end of my long-term relationship, a colleague recommended I go out with her brother – a “nice, Jewish doctor” – because he could “take care of me.” I resisted, until I saw the duds, err dudes, online.

On our first date at a cheesy sports bar, the surgeon, who I’ll call Dr. Doucheberg, to protect the guilty, incessantly dropped hints about how rich he is. He went so far as to pose a rhetorical question: “So, how much money do you think I make?” I didn’t know. As a starving artist, I’m more likely to win the lottery than experience perks like a 401K. I chalked up his crass question to emotional insecurity, not realizing he saw my modest earnings as a red flag.

When Dr. Doucheberg inevitably brought up money again, I revealed my squarely middle class income. He snarled. To be fair, he may have snorted. Whatever the exact sounds uttered, my (lack of) revenue was a deal breaker. Once Dr. Doucheberg cleared his phlegm, he muttered, “That’s irresponsible. How can you live on that?” He put his money where his mouth is. When the check came, he put in enough cash to cover his cocktail and part of the tip.

I walked home and ruminated over his condemnation. I thought, “It’s not like I’d sold heroin to fifth graders!” But once I got over the rejection, I understood his concern. He wanted to date someone who earns as much as he does, if not more. In fact, I realized, it was exactly the antiquated advice my mother and aunts had foisted on me when it came to marriage. ‘Marry well or better than well!’

As the paradigm of marriage has shifted to include same sex marriage, the growing number of female breadwinners, and stay-at home dads, the nature of dating has shifted too. Dr. Danni Michaeli, a psychiatrist in New York, finds the majority of his male patients not only expect their female partners to work, but also to go “Dutch” on dates. “Men who are dating increasingly expect women to split the check,” she says.

There may also be a growing number of men seeking sugar mommas to foot the bill in full. Dr. Michaeli says that, “the most interesting shift I’ve been seeing is the number of men who are more comfortable and even have come to expect their partners to be the major or sole breadwinner.”

Take David Nadel, a banjo player in California, who describes his career path as “weird” and “unstable.” As a result, he stopped dating women who don’t earn “enough.” “The idea of finding a woman of equal or better financial stability is very appealing,” he says, and now it is more possible than ever.

Men aren’t the only ones bucking tradition, as women are more willing to break up sooner if a guy isn’t pulling his weight. Luis Gonzales, a lawyer in Los Angeles, finds that, “Women are now initiating divorces more than men because they feel financially secure on their own.” Gonzales, who is single, says that he when he dates, he expects, “women to be financially secure for themselves.”

While women are expected (and expecting themselves) to pony up, there has not been a shift surrounding appearance, childcare, and household chores. Dr. Cecilia Dintino, a psychologist in New York, found her female patients, “feel pressure to have both an amazing lucrative career and to have children. And let’s not forget to stay beautiful too. It’s an unspoken cultural expectation that infiltrates the relationship expectations.”

It seems like women are still getting the short end of the stick. Is it progress if men are adding another expectation that they themselves are not meeting? I get that Dr. Doucheberg wants to maintain his lifestyle, but expecting a woman to make as much or more seems like an untenable position.

Even if a growing number of men and women aspire to split expenses evenly, men still earn more than their female peers, by and large. Income disparity is a critical issue in romantic relationships and gender remains part of that equation. Arikia Millikan, who is single and the founder of the tech site LadyBits, explains that women should be taken care of financially “by a society that enables their success, not by a partner who singularly determines it.”

Though many people agree that we should do whatever we can to correct income disparity, it’s probably going to be at least a generation before men and women are approaching full economical equality.

And there are those who still think the system shouldn’t change.  Robyn, a divorced lawyer in San Francisco wants someone just like rich Mad Men lothario “Roger Sterling.” She can take care of herself, but still wants a man to take care of her. Aaron Friedberg, a single, Ivy League grad and CEO of an educational software firm, says he’d feel “emasculated” dating women who earn more.

That said the choices are liberating for those who value a less traditional career path and more progressive partners. Tereza Nemessanyi runs Microsoft’s east coast start-up divisions, could only date men who value her professional ambition. “If I had landed with a partner who wanted me in apron strings – I would’ve been miserable,” she says.

As women achieve greater financial independence, I hope that we don’t merely switch the script, but write new ones. Who pays for who doesn’t have to be signal of whether you’re into your date, or date is into you. Inevitably, the only way to find out if you share similar expectations is through dating. I’m not the only one who has gone out with a Dr. Doucheberg. Once, Claudia says, on a third date with a guy “he wanted to be added to my health insurance. I was so turned off.” There’s something to be said for the three-strike rule.