When my partner and I decided to move in with one another, we had several discussions about what our relationship should look like. We’re feminists and that meant our relationship would be equal. But equality in relationships is not as clear-cut as we may like to believe. Chasing after a mirage of what we thought equal relationships were supposed to look like, we decided we would split all of the bills and housework right down the middle. (Yes, even queer couples get caught up in the heteronormative perception of equality — which often lacks intersectionality.) Thinking you can split everything right down the middle with your partner is a nice sentiment. But unfortunately, for us, and many other queer relationships, it is completely unrealistic and unfair because of other factors we were navigating in our relationship.
My partner and I are not only queer, we’re also an interracial couple. Not every queer relationship takes on the butch/femme presentation, but ours does. I’m a black, femme lesbian. My partner is white and although my she doesn’t explicitly identify as butch, she is often read as butch because she presents masculine of center. Navigating those dynamics within our relationship were often challenging.
I’m a freelance writer who works from home. When we first started dating, I wasn’t bringing in the same amount of money she was, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t contributing. Contributing to the home doesn’t always mean money. Working from home allowed me to manage the day-to-day of our home — grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry, budgeting and care of our dog. She worked outside of the home and was the breadwinner. After a while, our relationship started to reinforce heteronormative gender roles. However, this happens in many queer relationships. According to a study published by the American Sociological Association, gendered stereotypes are so deeply rooted in our culture that even same-gender relationships can fall into the trap.
Inevitably, these dynamics started to trigger resentment and a breakdown in communication within our relationship. We started arguing about money, schedules, household work, emotional labor, and our jobs. As I became busier and more successful in my career, I began to feel overwhelmed and resentful about maintaining the home while writing. My income significantly increased, but it wasn’t as consistent as it would be if I were working a more “traditional job,” so she became frustrated and resentful. I wanted her to split the household chores, and she wanted me to bring in more money, so we could split the bills evenly. When I would bring up that I manage the entire household, she felt criticized for “not doing enough.” When she mentioned our lack of money, I perceived her statement as a personal attack. Our conflict came to a head when both of us expressed we felt the other wasn’t “pulling their weight.”
While the 50/50 premise may work for some couples, it doesn’t account for the dynamics in an interracial queer relationship. The gender pay gap affects all women, but black women are disproportionately impacted. While white women may only earn 80 cents to each dollar earned by a white man, black women only make 63 cents to each dollar earned by a white man. Even if I were to give up my journalism career to work in a more stable industry, I still wouldn’t necessarily be able to make the income to split the bills evenly, all of the time. Whether we’re corporate executives or in the service industry, black women consistently earn less than white men and white women holding the same job.
Culture assumptions and expectations put on black women and femmes also reinforce the unfairness of the 50/50 relationship model. We live in a white capitalist society, where emotional and domestic labor isn’t seen as labor at all because “real jobs” provide income. This puts an obvious strain on femmes and femmes of color in relationships because women and femmes are culturally seen as caregivers. Even as my career was taking off, I still felt like I was expected to maintain and manage the household because I worked from home. I spent my day pitching, writing, and editing. But I still cleaned, did the laundry, cooked most of our meals and maintained our budget. But there is an extra layer of heavy lifting that black women must endure. We simultaneously manage underappreciated domestic labor in our relationships while being systematically oppressed and overlooked in society. It’s emotionally exhaustive and wears on our mental health.
But I wasn’t the only one who felt unseen and overworked. Consumed with my own marginalization, I failed to recognize the emotional labor of having to always be the main financial provider in our relationship. While my partner reads as butch, she is a woman navigating in a heterosexual, patriarchy as well. Focusing on her masculinity, I unintentionally erased her emotional heavy lifting and struggles. What if she wanted to go back to school or take some much needed time off? Why did I always assume she would be there to provide the income when I had a slow month freelancing?
It became clear that we wanted the same things from one another: acknowledgment of each other’s labor. I wanted her to acknowledge the emotional and domestic labor that I perform, while simultaneously building a career. She wanted to not always be seen as the default financial provider.
Having a successful relationship does require both parties contributing to the health and growth of that partnership, but that doesn’t necessarily mean splitting that participation equally all of the time. Whether it’s finances, household work, or emotional labor, we as individuals, bring different resources to the table (these resources can be fluid––changing and shifting within the relationship over time.) A balanced, healthy partnership means those resources should complement one another.
Once we sat down and respectfully discussed what each of us wanted and needed from the other, the dynamics in our relationship shifted. I took on some side jobs to catch up on bills. She took on more responsibility at home when I had an extremely busy week writing. We work together and check in with one another.
Equality in relationships is much more than gender roles. Equality not only speaks to one’s legitimacy in the relationship; it’s an acknowledgment of the collective responsibility between two people. Our heteronormative perception of equality, cultural expectations and desire to measure up to white feminist ideals obscured what equality meant in our relationship. We got caught up in what was perceived to be equal rather than deciding what equality meant for our relationship.
Feminist relationships don’t necessarily mean splitting everything down the middle — all of the time. And despite our culture’s obsession with other people’s relationships, what other people do in their relationship has no bearing on ours. My partner and I didn’t need to pay bills like other couples and manage our household like other couples to have a successful, equal relationship. What other couples (queer or heterosexual) did in their relationship shouldn’t dictate how we determine our roles.
Equality will mean different things to different partners, but ultimately, it’s about give and take — working together to maintain balance in the home. Sometimes that means you’re the temporary breadwinner until your partner gets that raise or finishes their degree. It may also mean temporarily managing all of the household work because your partner is working a lot of overtime. Most of all, it means communicating about your exhaustion, fears, stress and what you emotionally and physically need from your partner. What matters is how you and your partner define equality in your relationship.