Q: I’m a 35-year-old woman. I’m living with my boyfriend, who’s a freelance artist (talented but just getting started). We’ve been together for three years, and I am paying for pretty much everything. I don’t feel resentful. I feel like we’re a team and eventually his career will take off. However, my parents keep saying it’s a bad dynamic: I’m coddling him, and he’s taking advantage of me.—Worried
A: Ideally, when one partner is the sole breadwinner, the other is the stay-at-home parent to more than two rambunctious goldfish. There’s a term in risk researcher and former derivatives trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s books—“skin in the game.” That’s what’s missing when, say, a hedge fund honcho advises you to make some big-bucks investment. If he’s guessed right, he’ll share in your profits. However, any losses are all yours.
“Skin in the game” is also what’s missing from your boyfriend’s end of the relationship. You’re doing all of the work to keep the roof over the relationship. Your boyfriend’s doing none of the work but reaping 100 percent of the benefits. Such a gross asymmetry in effort may be creating a breeding ground for laziness. In fact, by making things so easy for him, you may be making it harder for him to succeed.
The fact that you’re a woman who’s paying for everything may make this more of a problem. Women evolved to seek “providers,” and men coevolved to expect that. Men’s self-worth is also driven by their ability to provide. So though many couples think they “should” be OK with a woman as the sole or primary moneymaker (because … equality!), it often leads to resentment in the woman and emasculation in the man.
Finally, consider whether you really aren’t OK with this Vincent van No Job arrangement but are going along with it because you think it’s the good-girlfriend thing to do. It’s OK—and probably good for your relationship—to ask your boyfriend to put “skin in the game.” People value and feel more a part of something they have to work for—and not just by opening all of the bills before handing them over for the wage slave girlfriend to pay.
Q: I’m a 28-year-old gay guy. I like to travel and go out and do stuff on the weekends. My boyfriend prefers to smoke pot and uhh … time travel on the couch. He’s a good person, and I love him, but he’s unwilling to cut back on his pot smoking. Friends tell me to dump him, but we’ve been together for three years, and bailing now would mean throwing that time away.—Frustrated
A: The guy isn’t without ambition. He tries really hard every day to give the cat a contact high. There’s a point when love seems like “the answer”—when you’re 14 and practicing your make-out skills on your pillow. But then you grow up and get into a relationship with a man you love, and you find yourself packing for Bali while he’s packing his bong. Presumably, you’ve tried to come to some compromise. It helps to be specific about what would work for you—like by proposing that he come down from Weed Mountain to spend Saturday afternoon and evening out on the town with you. If he’s unwilling to be enough of a boyfriend to make you happy, well, you have a decision to make.
In making it, don’t let yourself get tripped up by “the sunk cost effect.” This is decision researcher Hal Arkes’ term for our (irrational) “tendency to continue an endeavor once an investment in money, effort or time has been made.” But that initial investment—for example, the three years you’ve already put into your relationship with James Bong—is gone. What makes sense is looking at whether the “endeavor” will pay off in the future, say, in a willingness by your boyfriend to combine his favorite hobby and yours. As travel writer Rick Steves put it, “I have used cannabis all over the world.” (Hmm … then again, so have other people, and they’re still in jail in Turkey.)