The car meant more to me than it might have if we were married, because it was a gift, not an obligation. But it did not signal that everything would change. Paul wouldn't let me go under, but neither was he indicating that I could blithely dive in over my head and expect him to save me from drowning every time. I felt relieved but not rescued, grateful but not complacent.
A year later, I bought an apartment, and my lawyer suggested I write a will. Just doing so, he said, was a chance to think about what and whom I cared about, in the form of where I wanted my property to end up. I gave a few pieces of art and furniture to friends and set aside some cash for my niece and nephew, as well as several political causes I feel passionate about. The rest of my money and the apartment—my only real and valuable property—I left to Paul. Eventually, Paul wrote a will too, leaving his house, land, and cash to me.
We had not vowed to stay together until death us do part (in fact, we had only been together seven years when I bought my apartment). Yet our wills were testament to that expectation.
We are still working it out, this tricky interaction of love and money. Paul has suggested a joint checking account, which he sees as a way to further our unity. I see it as a means of surveillance and a potential source of bickering. How much independence is healthy? What abets commitment, what undermines it?
When Paul bought me the car, I felt saved but not entirely safe, like family but not quite. Maybe that's a good thing—better than assuming a future that is by no means guaranteed. After all, parents do not always bail out their children, adult children do not always take care of their aged parents. Divorced women often end up poor. How much security is reasonable to expect?
These days, divorce courts rarely calculate the dollar value of pain. In divorce, the judge splits the joint wealth down the middle. If there are children, the judge looks at the income, earning potential, and expenses of each parent, then calibrates child support.
What if the stresses and disappointments of the coupled life threatened to overwhelm Paul's and my love? What would hold us together? We have no kids. While we'd forfeit some of the comfort we now enjoy, both of us would be able to support ourselves, as we did before we met. We have 17 years' history together, and that is nothing to sneeze at—but we also, I hope, have decades ahead of us.
The questions are the same as they were in the first years of our life together. What is practical? What is fair? And they are different. Should Paul and I aim for perfect financial equality? Or does that quest betray—or even encourage— the suspicion that one is putting in more than her share and the other taking advantage?
It is still not easy to answer these questions or even, after fifteen years, to talk about them, because for Paul and me, as for most of us, money has a childhood history; it represents identity, status, independence, security, and—when exchanged or shared between intimates—love.
We will probably never finish working it out. In the meantime, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, we are pulling tighter the knot we never legally tied.
This story was provided by our content partner, YourTango, a digital media company dedicated to love and relationships. No matter what love stage our users are in — single, taken, engaged, married, starting over, or complicated — we help them live their best love lives. Written by Judith Levine.