Developing a deft touch with help
October 13, 2010 7:56 PM   Subscribe

My partner, who is poor, has lost part of her source of income. I found out through very gentle prying she has no back-up, and I can easily afford to help her. I would like to do that without creating power asymmetry.

I'm aware how asymmetry of power can screw up relationships: my experience with my parents was quid pro quo, all the way. So I have bad examples in such a matter and I would like advice about it. My goal is to give my partner what she needs without creating any obligation - the relationship thrives on freedom - and I fear I would not know what to do if obligation-feelings or power-asymmetry issues began turning up. I would like recommendations for reading, counseling, whatever. This is not (necessarily) my partner's problem, but I am sure it is mine.

Things I already know to do - subsidize, not lend; offer before the need (done).

Salient facts: we do not live together; she and I are conjoined by nothing external like contracts.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
If you can, I'd say the best way would be to take care of certain bills (rent, car repayments, whatever) entirely. This removes the awkwardness of having a 'pocket money' scenario in which you give her some weekly stipend, and saves her from the 'I'm spending his money' feeling if you just put a lump sum into her account. Ideally, after you'd set it up this would be invisible to her.

In terms of how to put it to her, I'd say something like "you're immensely talented, and it happens to be in things that don't get paid well/have job prospects/are valued/whatever. The things that I do/am good at/enjoy just happen to mean I can get a job that pays well. It's completely ridiculous that I should be paid more for my thing when your thing's just as difficult/valuable/important. In the same way that you give so freely of your time/self/energy, I'd love to help you out by giving freely of something that I happen to have in surplus at the moment."
posted by twirlypen at 8:07 PM on October 13, 2010 [12 favorites]

Suggest you set up a prepaid debit card situation, and hand her the card with a statement of the balance available. Depending on your relationship, you could parse this with a clear no-strings narrative. She doesn't have to use it, but it is there if necessary.

Alternately, if there is a monthly expense that you can wipe out for her, offer to do that. Example: she's paying $100 month on a car payment but has only a year to go. Offer to pay off that debt ($1200 or less) to ease the regular burden. Those niggling monthly expenses often weigh one down more than their dollar value would indicate.

Finally, if you do become a "benefactor" in this situation, please understand that you aren't the benefactor. You absolutely have to forget about this forever. If there's ever a situation in the future in which you're writing an AskMe question that includes how you helped her out now, then you're not doing it right.
posted by yesster at 8:11 PM on October 13, 2010 [5 favorites]

Agreed that you should take care of specific expenses. When I have had financial hardships and my mom helped me, she would generally pay my rent. It was a set amount, I never had to ask for it she just sent it. We generally talked about an end date for the arrangement as well. Like, I got a job that paid $X an hour more or something like that. Once we had an arrangement where I would clean her house once a week in exchange for a set amount of money a month. That might be awkward for a romantic relationship but it helped me feel like I was helping do something my mom hated and I wasn't just "freeloading."

Also, my mom still pays my cell phone (family plan) which could be an option for the two of you. Although, the bill payer gets all the call details which could be awkward depending on your level of autonomy.

Last thought: if you offer financial support don't ever question what she spends her money on. If she buys a latte that is her choice even if you wouldn't spend your money on a latte. If you can't keep silent don't offer any help.
posted by rachums at 8:30 PM on October 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

Last thought: if you offer financial support don't ever question what she spends her money on. If she buys a latte that is her choice even if you wouldn't spend your money on a latte. If you can't keep silent don't offer any help.

it's brilliant that you are making such a loving offer. and i agree with the statement above and also the other posters. make it silent, or don't do it.
posted by lakersfan1222 at 8:38 PM on October 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

WOAH... First thing I have to say is that if I were in your place, I would be extremely careful (much more careful than this) about respecting her privacy unless you already have heard explicitly from her that it's fine for you to talk about this in public and specifically on the internet.

I suggest you ask a mod to anonymize this question unless you're positive she would be okay with finding out (and anyone she knows finding out) you posted this on a public, permanently archived forum. I'm not gonna spend the time researching it myself (how widely you use this username and the email you include in your profile / whether the full name you include in your profile is real, etc.). But if you are at all connected to this acct elsewhere, I really urge you to think about this. It may be that you have no idea at all how much she would be uncomfortable with this.

I speak from (relationship-compromising) experience. I had a partner who was casual about talking in public, googleably, about how he helped me out financially. His lack of ability to respect or understand my sensitivities here was an extremely serious relationship issue.
posted by sparrows at 8:46 PM on October 13, 2010 [4 favorites]

Urgh. I had a situation like this where I was on the potential receiving end, and almost immediately what I spent my money on got questioned (helping a friend was not cool, I guess) so I turned down the help.

It was really awkward to turn it down. I got really self-conscious about whether he thought I really needed it after all, if I could turn it down. I resented the fact that it came with strings that I only found out about AFTER I accepted it.

So agreed with everyone above that you have to be able to give it without thinking about where it goes.

I'd even strengthen that to be: if you don't approve of the way she spends her money now, this probably isn't a great idea.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:45 PM on October 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh and another thing--it was really uncool that I was put in a situation where I had to turn down groceries for me and my loved ones. It made me feel guilty about saying no.

I would have rather not even been asked! I certainly would have hated to have someone pay a bill for me without telling me.

She doesn't have other people who she's financially intertwined with which might make her feel pressured to take the help, so that will make things simpler on both of you.

If you can put it in the form of a nice practical gift, and maybe invent an occasion (our 14th month together, and your birthday is the 14th! Congrats!), that would be best. In that case, get a staple item that she wants/needs but can't afford right now, or something that would improve her life/save her money but she doesn't think to buy it herself.

I, personally, would love some shoes that don't have holes in them but I hate spending the money on them. If my partner got me a pair, I would be really grateful even though I would never buy them.

Think a winter clothes (coat, sweater), a gift card to a department store, a gym membership, a new kitchen implement/appliance, decent towels/sheets.

Basically, anything she needs to have replaced, replace it. I think it would have less of a power imbalance than straight up cash would.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:55 PM on October 13, 2010

Rather than being explicit, you might come up with a variety of excuses and ways to subsidize her life. I had my rent subsidized by someone because he "spent so much time there anyway -- really, you're saving me from the cost of moving somewhere I like better" and later (when he'd moved in) because he earned more. You could pay her heating bills because "I'm the one who always wants the heat cranked up anyway," her water bill because "you've been letting me do laundry here," or her cell phone because "I'm the one who calls you." Be careful with the wording, so you don't accidentally imply that you're paying rent for X days a week, more like "I've been using water here a lot; let me pay the water for the next few months." This does create slightly more dependency than the other suggestions below, because if you were to break up, these would obviously stop.

You can probably sneak many of life's necessities into her house unnoticed by bringing over materials that you might conceivably use together. You can bring her groceries "to cook dinner with tonight" and end up with cooked leftovers, 9.9 pounds of rice, frozen chicken you didn't end up using, 4.5 pounds of carrots, salad dressing, 0.9 gallons of apple juice, and 4 beers. You can buy things in bulk (like laundry detergent) for you two to share, but then leave them with her and buy a backup long before the first runs out. If you sometimes sleep and shower there, you can buy a ten-pack of soap, a three-pack of toothpaste, and a two-pack of toothbrushes. Just by being a generous and slightly absent-minded version of yourself, you can easily help her stock up. (At one point, I realized my BF had left four jars of maple syrup at my house. The man likes making brunch, what can I say?)

Another way to sneakily get her what she needs is to end up with excess yourself. Notice that she needs a printer? Buy yourself a new one and give her your almost-new one, or claim that yours just clutters up your desk. No obligation; she's doing you a big favor by keeping you from having to make it to that electronics recycling store. You could be a bit offhanded ("do I remember you need a printer?"), ask for a favor ("no chance you need a printer is there? take it off my hands?"), or be happy ("you need a printer? great, I have been trying to get rid of mine for a month!").

Think of occasions for giving her practical gifts: thank you gifts, a Thanksgiving gift, gifts for various anniversaries. Choose gifts that prevent expenditures that she'd have to make (winter boots), that she could sell if necessary (electronics), and that keep on giving. A CSA box or "coffee of the month" subscription hits the trifecta: she receives plenty of needed veggies / meat / coffee; she'll have the confidence that it will be delivered weekly for the next X months; and even the minimum order is often so big that she could probably split the "cost" (ie, sell half) to her neighbor. Clothes or shoes can be good, but a power imbalance can result if you fill her wardrobe with sexy high heels, red lace panties, hunting gear, preppy cardigans or anything else that isn't her style. Ensure she gets the clothes she'd otherwise want to buy.

The toughest necessity to subsidize will be her gifts to you and others, especially if she celebrates the upcoming winter holidays. Gift certificates are great for this. You can offer to contribute for gifts that might appropriately come from you both. To help her give gifts to you, discover a desire for handmade items, services (e.g., computer tune-ups), and various inexpensive things. My dad excels at this. If you want to figure out something expensive to get him, you have to pay attention way back in July, because closer to Christmas, he never mentions a single thing for which someone could pay more than $30. Now, he collects quarters, particularly the quarters that show various US states. That's what he wants, a US quarter. So, I keep my eye out for shiny coins showing states he lacks, and a great gift of ten coins costs me all of $2.50.
You're right that your attitude is an essential variable here. For a reading, check out Kahlil Gibran's On Giving. There are many ways to give without creating imbalance or obligation: think of a tree giving apples, a cloud giving water, a beaver giving its dam-building labor, a flower giving fragrance and pollen, a bee acting as courier. Life is giving, and giving can be an effortless thing. Giving can relieve the giver of a burden, and it can create lightness and joy for the giver. In many ways, she will be doing you the favor by accepting without worrying about it, because of the pleasure you'll feel and the lower stress in both your lives.

The best way someone conveyed this to me was by saying that he had had trouble receiving gifts because he comes from a prideful don't-need-nothing-from-nobody background, and he only started enjoying gifts once he discovered what a joy it was for him to give. The gift is given no-strings-attached -- to be used, sold, passed along to the next person, or thrown out in whatever fashion works best for me -- and it will make life happier for him if I receive it without strings attached. It only took hearing that speech once, because he really meant it.

(Sorry this turned into a novel, hope it helps!)
posted by salvia at 11:02 PM on October 13, 2010 [51 favorites]

One thing that might not be a good idea, depending on her personality, is to take her shopping (whether for clothing or groceries or an item she needs.) If she is shy she might be too embarrassed to pick out what she really wants because she's unsure about how much it would be polite to spend, or because she worries you will disapprove of what she picks.

In my case the only times I've been taken shopping by someone it was by a close relative (grandma or dad, usually for a birthday) so it would not have been weird for them to have given me money or a gift certificate instead and I would have vastly preferred that.

I've also had the experience of being jobless for a time and having an SO take me grocery shopping (when formerly I had shopped alone using my money, as part of my agreed-upon contribution to the household) and having the person get all judgy about my choices. It was unexpected because the person never seemed to care what I bought when I was spending my money as opposed to his money, and while it was likely due to concern over our newly decreased household income, it did feel very much like a sudden power imbalance.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 2:39 AM on October 14, 2010

I might take the approach of talking to her about it. Say pretty much what you've said here: you care about her, you know things are tight for her, and you would love to help her out financially with no strings attached, and how would she feel about that? To me, part of how you avoid power asymmetry is to offer her a choice here. I don't know that I would pay a bill for her, I would find that kind of off-putting and disrespectful if I were in her shoes.
posted by biscotti at 6:01 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Good luck, this is super duper tough. I doubt you can underestimate how difficult this can be.
posted by Classic Diner at 6:02 AM on October 14, 2010

Please don't stage a mugging or a fake poker game. Well-intentioned, yes, but so rife with possibility for embarassment or disaster that they make me cringe. (You're explaining her private financial problems to at least four other people, for example, and let's not get into the million things that could happen with a fake mugging.) The real problem though is that they don't let her be an adult with her own choices and agency. Talk to her. Tell her you want to help, you can afford to help, and stick with the suggestions here - pay a set bill or amount, do not ask (or wonder or think) about how she's using it, and don't give more than you can afford to not have paid back - reference the many askme's that have someone wanting to get money owed from an ex where the response is basically, "good LUCK." While you and your partner may be rock solid, the world is full of chaos and you don't know what could happen tomorrow. and if she says no... be ok with her choice.
posted by lemniskate at 8:38 AM on October 14, 2010

Goodness, salvia's answer is so eloquent and comprehensive--listen to her! (Also, good for you for trying to do this in a sensitive way.)
posted by torticat at 11:23 AM on October 14, 2010

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