Start With a Partnership

Romance is good, friendship is good, but a romantic relationship has got to be a working partnership

Jack Herlocker
Aug 4, 2020 · 7 min read
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Photo by Ricardo Moura on Unsplash

So I had this idea of writing a “this is how we did it” advice article, focusing on how a partnership is an integral part of a marriage. I didn’t have all the details worked out, exactly, but I had the basic concepts. And then, Gillian Sisley wrote about it first:

Worse, she hit points I hadn’t thought of. Well… drat. However, I promised something for Agnes Louis, who is hoping to find the trick to having spousal discussions while folding laundry, so here you go, Agnes! (But you might want to read Gillian’s piece first.)

I’ve been married twice, the second time for twenty years and counting, and both wives and I share firm beliefs that any functional relationship — definitely including a romantic one, and most emphatically including a marriage — has to be a partnership. Two people working together toward a shared goal or goals. Both contributing based on their abilities, both benefiting from mutual effort.

Being partners in a relationship is not easy at the beginning, especially when the relationship is in that initial, awkward, “So what exactly are we doing here?” stage. But at some point the two of you reach the point where you both enjoy each other’s company enough that you want to do it a fair amount of time; this is when you need to come to an agreement on how you will be partners.

When Deb (current wife, the one who hung on to me the longest) and I decided it was time to Get Serious, we agreed that we were going to be partners. Partners in love, partners in making each other happy, partners in making our individual lives work. Then not long after that (it seems, looking back) we talked about marriage and I asked her to marry me, and part of that proposal was asking her to be my partner as well as my wife, along with promising to be a partner to her.

In any partnership, both of you want to lay out ground rules and expectations and starting points. Those things that “everybody knows”? Make sure you cover those, too. Between getting engaged and getting married, Deb and I talked about things over lunch, including (this was not long after the movie Titanic came out) if there was only room in the lifeboat for one of us, obviously she would get in and I would stay on the ship. (In this case “obviously” was purely my assumption, by the way.) Deb then informed me that no, in a partnership, both partners go down with the ship. Obviously.

Sometimes a partnership is financial. We both contributed to our retirement funds while we worked. Some years she made more (especially when we factored in health insurance), sometimes I made more (bonuses—can’t count on them, but they can be nice). But our net worth has always been our net worth, detailed in a quarterly report (yes, I create a summary report of our finances, income, and debts every quarter to share with Deb—I’m a numbers person, you can indulge your idiosyncrasies any way you want), and in retirement it is all our retirement money.

Sometimes a partnership is mutually supportive for other reasons. As a partnership, when one of us needed to leave a job (because of circumstances out of our control, mental health, or both) we talked it over first, went down the list of pros and cons, covered the financial impacts (“We can stop contributing to your IRA for now, then start ramping that back up when you get raises”), discussed side benefits (“Hey, we can commute together!”), and mentioned important points (“If you don’t quit this job you will go absolutely crazy, and I suspect that would be a bad thing”).

Sometimes a partnership involves life changes. We were already saving aggressively for retirement when we got married in our 40s, because both of us felt that was important (as we discussed as part of the “financial talk,” also known as “where do we want our money to go, and why”) but obviously we would be holding off retirement until we qualified for full Social Security, right? Because everyone knows it’s just stupid to retire too early. Except… Deb is older than I am, so she would either be working for years past her full retirement date, or she would be retired before I was and sitting at home while I kept working. Okay, we decided we’d burn that bridge when we got to it. But then 2019 came around, and Deb did NOT want to stay in her job any longer, and I was starting to have cognitive problems at work, and we sat down and did the numbers and found that I could start collecting Social Security at 62 (November 2019!) while not crossing the “breakeven point”¹ until I was 78². So it made sense for us to retire at the end of 2019. So we did!³

Sometimes a partnership is just helping out. I do most of the stereotypical “guy” projects around the house (like hanging new LED lights in the basement to replace the ancient fluorescent antique that started acting up) while Deb likes doing laundry and washing dishes. She hands me tools and makes sure I’m steady on the step-stool; I help hang and fold clothes, and sometimes dry dishes (although, dish-wise, mostly my contribution is finding creative ways to stack the dishwasher). Stuff gets done, and when it doesn’t, we discuss it.

Sometimes a partnership is silly stuff. There’s a centipede on the ceiling, I swat it (okay, swat at it) with a swatter, she gets the corpse (wait, it’s still wiggling!) with a tissue. Team effort, bug is dead, high-fives all around.

We don’t have kids. So our outlook on parenting-partnerships is basically theoretical, but we do have some ideas. Such as, the male half of the M/F partnership probably doesn’t do enough. (I’d love to hear stories from same-sex parents!) So we suggest that anybody looking to be parents decide how you want to divvy up tasks before the kid(s) come. Maybe one of you is better suited to be the money-maker in the family while the other is the stay-at-home parent; if so, everything we’ve read about almost every such arrangement is that the stay-at-home half does more than the money-maker half gives credit for, leading to resentments. Make sure you talk about this at the next partnership meeting!

Oh yeah, partnership meetings. If you are in a business relationship, you have meetings with your partner, right? Back when Deb and I both worked for salaries, our partnership meetings were the shared commutes to and from work (we worked about ten minutes apart). We filled each other in on our days, brought up things we thought about, talked about what we’d do when we got home, plans for the weekend, and so on. We haven’t come up with a suitable replacement yet for retirement (yes, we spend almost the entire day together, but sometimes that makes for less communication, not more, since it’s so easy to just put off a topic until later) but we’ll think of something. We still have quarterly financial meetings, because we both need to be aware of what is happening with our money⁴ and our plans for the future.

We’re not saying that every romantic relationship needs to be a partnership with both parties involved. Plenty of couples go through the relationship with one person making all the decisions, or not sharing what is going on, or not laying out expectations. But those tend to end in divorce, murder, or the surviving member shouting “FREE AT LAST!” at the funeral and spitting into the open grave.

Something to think about. Maybe before the next (or first) partnership meeting?

¹For those of you not in the States, or too young to worry about Social Security yet, the breakeven point is when you have the same cumulative dollars, regardless of whether you retired early at a reduced rate or later at the full rate. So if you retire early at 75% of what you would make if you waited, but do it two years early, it would take you about eight years before the total amount you received equaled (example only, round numbers, not factoring taxes, yada yada). So that would be two years of (relative) youth you would have to enjoy life with your partner. Assuming, of course, that you can live for two years on 75% of the maximum retirement rate, and not everyone can.

²For reasons that I won’t cover because they distract from the narrative, by the time I am 78 I will be dead. Either brain-dead or dead-dead. Meanwhile I can have the next five years together with my best friend while I am in the best health I am going to be for the rest of my life. Easy choice.

³Strictly speaking, Deb retired in early 2020. Another long story that would detract from the narrative.

⁴I had a wonderful concept for our retirement budget: take what we normally spend each month, average it, call it a budget, compare to prospective income, tweak as needed. Easy! And then the Trump Pandemic came along and I know we were probably going to spend less on gasoline (for example) but seriously folks…

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