Dating Down: to enter into a relationship with someone with a much lower income, less material possessions, or a far lower income-earning potential.
On a quiet afternoon a couple of months ago, I found myself deeply locked into observing a Twitter debate on income and relationships. Now for the most part, I believe Twitter and its 140-character limit is mostly a horrific venue for relationship conversations that require nuance and thoughtful consideration, but what had me intrigued that day was all of the hot takes folks were making based on an ideological conundrum being faced by women who make $400K annually, and is married to a man who makes only $40K.
It was a fascinating look into how some people actually think about love and family building, especially women. Although there was little to no quantitative information provided about how much the couple loved each other, how much chemistry they had and what intangible connections solidified their affection, judgments on their intrinsic worth and health as a couple abounded. Many women just flat out tweeted, “HELL NAW I AIN’T SUPPORTING NO GROWN ASS MAN!” But mostly the conversation centered around disbelief that such a couple could even exist, which I found funny because I know a couple that actually does.
These two have been together since high school. They are now married with two kids, a house and everything else that’s supposed to comprise the “American Dream.” She grew up in an abusive household. He grew up the oldest of five boys in a household without a father. After taking our final high school exams, he decided to go into teaching/social services and she decided to continue her fascination with software, hardware and new technology.
For them, that $400K-$40K salary difference is their reality. Unfortunately, with her being the breadwinner of the household, in today’s terms, she would be seen as “dating down” and entertaining a man whose inherent self-worth is of no equal to her own.
People would make the comfortably ignorant allusion that she works “harder” than him, that she is more “serious” than he is, and that she is intrinsically worth more. But to arrive at that conclusion is to ignore how they feel about one another and how deeply bonded they are in how they helped each other overcome their own personal demons.
He works just as hard as she does. He is just as serious about building a life for his children as she is. But, as a teacher, $400K a year is not a reality where they live. For some of you, their relationship might’ve shed some light on why using finance as a metric of dating down is a ridiculous concept, but for those of you who aren’t convinced, there’s a term that you need to digest: income volatility.
Mobility and stability are the cornerstones of a financially thriving household. When we think about shows that present successful families like The Cosby Show (a doctor married to a lawyer) and Black-ish (a marketing executive married to a doctor), we look at their combined financial contributions as the biggest signs of household prosperity. When we start attaching a person’s worth to their current income, we begin equating one’s money with their ability to provide us with ascending mutual happiness, all while ignoring the precipitous reality of income fluctuation.
According to a recent study on income volatility, how much a couple earns does not significantly erase how volatile their income is. Of course, poor families are subject to greater fluctuation, but families that are “better off’ are still exposed to substantial swings. And then when variables are added into the mix such as race, gender, urbanization and immigrant status, things become even more complex. Since the 1970s, income volatility has become a huge problem.
So how does one attach a constant worth to a person in our society whose income isn’t a lifelong certainty? Therein lies the largest problem with the idea of “dating up” and “dating down.” Your relative position is on uncertain grounds.
At a time with retracting job industries, an increase in automation, a decrease in real salaries and a surplus of tenuous part-time and contract job opportunities, the person “not good enough” for you today, could be the person you’re not “qualified to date” tomorrow. And, even if you do find someone in your tax bracket, the idea that you will both be on a non-stop, ever-increasing journey of financial freedom is not necessarily a reality anymore.
Look, I’m not trying to convince anyone to erase their financial expectations in a significant other because to be honest, I don’t really care what you want. Those qualifications only affect you. All I’m saying is that before you attach a value to someone based on their income, at least be aware of how precarious it is. Individuals and households will experience economic ups and downs where you’ll actually need love to get through.
Lincoln Anthony Blades blogs daily on his site, ThisIsYourConscience.com. He’s author of the book, “You’re Not A Victim, You’re A Volunteer.” He can be reached on Twitter @lincolnablades and on Facebook at Lincoln Anthony Blades.