I grew up blissfully ignorant of gender roles. Growing up in the ‘90s, I never thought I’d one day need a man with a six-figure income to take care of me. But I wasn’t a feminist, either—I didn’t even know what feminism was until my 20s. All I knew was what my mother taught me—that I’d have to work hard to become a self-made woman—and what Hollywood taught me — that eventually I’d meet a Jonathan Taylor Thomas look-a-like and be swept away to my happily ever after.
Though my JTT look-a-like never surfaced, I did find someone to share my happily ever after with. When we first entered couplehood, neither of us had much in the way of disposable income. Date nights included hitting up Applebee’s for happy hour and grabbing a $.99 movie rental. If I had to name one of us as the breadwinner, it was him, but money was such a non-issue in our relationship that we never thought of who earned more. We viewed each other as equals so we split the bills down the middle, paying little attention to who earned what. We were in love and that was all that mattered, right?
For a while, I truly believed it was as simple as that. Oh, if only I could go back in time and slap some reality into my naïve 20-year-old self.
About two years later, I received a job offer in South Korea. I would live in a rent-free apartment and share the gift of English with hundreds of middle school girls. For about 20 hours of teaching time a week, I’d receive a generous salary and 10 weeks of paid vacation.
They wanted to pay me to travel halfway around the world? Um, yes please!
Not only was it a lucrative opportunity but my boyfriend and I also had little tying us to the States — no mortgage, no kids, no careers. We were both facing layoffs so it seemed as good a time as any for an expat excursion. Within weeks, our bags were packed and we boarded the plane, Korea-bound.
We knew there was little chance of my boyfriend being able to work while we lived in Seoul, but my salary would be more than plenty for us both to live comfortably. From my point of view, life couldn’t get much better than being whisked away to a foreign land while your girlfriend made enough to support the household. He couldn’t work but he’d have plenty of time to immerse himself in a foreign culture, a new hobby, whatever his heart desired. Plus, we’d be able to take various vacations throughout Asia. All that, and all he had to do was show up. Who wouldn’t love that?
Well, he didn’t love that. I’d leave the house to spend eight hours on an estrogen-fueled roller coaster ride otherwise known as an all-girls middle school, never knowing what the combination of raging teenage hormones and language barriers would bring each day. But I always knew exactly what would be waiting for me when I got home—my boyfriend, right where I left him. It was hard to tell if he’d even moved, let alone gone off to take advantage of our new locale. I worked while he wasted his time, and every time I came home from work, I resented him a little more for it.
I tried a multitude of ways to get him back to his former outgoing self. I tried pushing him to check out different tourist spots. I tried dragging him to different social outings with fellow expats. I tried venting my frustrations in a firm voice (basically, I yelled).
Nothing changed. My boyfriend was becoming a shut-in and there was nothing I could do about it.
I was paying for everything and he didn’t have a single responsibility. He could study a new language, meet locals, take cooking classes, anything! So why the hell wasn’t he? Here I was, too exhausted by the time the weekend came to take advantage of all that the city had to offer, and there he sat, wasting all that opportunity. Didn’t he appreciate what I was providing?
That, it seemed, was the crucial word: Providing. Turns out, we both had more expectations surrounding gender roles than we thought. Although he’s never been a macho man, his male instinct was to be a provider, which to him meant working, earning money and supporting the household. Unable to do any of that, he felt worthless as a man.
It’s not that we didn’t divvy up responsibilities, either. I was responsible for supporting us financially while he was responsible for looking after our home, doing the grocery shopping and running errands. I brought home the bacon—he cooked it and cleaned up afterward. We split the responsibilities but, understandably, preparing my lunches and scrubbing the toilet wasn’t enough to help him reclaim his manhood.
Feeling emasculated, he lost all motivation. He slipped into depression with no desire to leave the house, find a hobby or make new friends. And when you watch a situation turn your partner into a depressed and apathetic shell of his former self, it’s hard not to question your future together. After all, there will be plenty more challenging situations to come. Is this how he’ll react if he ever loses his job? What about when we have a family? Will he ever take the kids to the beach or a movie without me nagging him for days? Will I have to drag him everywhere until the day we die?
After two years, we pulled the plug on our gender role reversal experiment. The salary, the perks, the travel—none of it was worth the toll on our relationship. To be a good partner, my boyfriend felt he needed to be a provider. I could still be the breadwinner but he needed to feel that he was at least providing something. To do that, he needed to go back to work.
I never dreamed that being the sole breadwinner would crush my partner’s spirit. If being the breadwinner is so essential to his sense of self-worth and desire to accomplish anything in life, I’ve decided, the title is all his. I’ve been there, done that, and it sucked.