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How Much Does It Cost to Save a Relationship?


My first instinct was to haggle with the couples therapist. I had always been proudly cheap: the kind of person who would bring Tupperware when the office had free food or return the expensive earrings after wearing them to a wedding. The couples therapist charged $235 a session. “Do you work on a sliding scale at all?” I emailed back. She was, of course, out of network. She wanted to know how close we could come and explained that her cost was the New York industry standard for wrangling irate couples into civil discourse. I waited a month to respond, unable to justify yet another expense on top of my individual therapy session of $160 a week before insurance. By the time I wrote back, the therapist said flexible pricing was a no-go.

It was the summer of 2020, and my seven-year relationship with my now-husband, Michael, was on life support. We had gotten stuck in a bad cycle: He was feeling low and listless — a combination of the quarantine and other existential angst — and I was always focused on work. This made him angry, and in response, I retreated further into my assignments, an impulse that hurt him even more. We decided to set up a session. Going to couples therapy helped us understand that our fights, over who ordered the toilet paper (always him) and who made our plans (always me), had nothing to do with these petty domestic disputes. Instead, they were about more deep-seated anger and hurt that had built up like plaque around our relationship.

Our weekly sessions have since evolved from triage to tune-ups, but they are still essential in helping us cohabitate without losing our minds (and our sex drives). Over the last four years, we’ve spent almost $10,500 on couples therapy, but therapy, as it turns out, was just a gateway expense. In those sessions, our therapist gently suggested that perhaps, living in a 600-square-foot apartment, where Michael worked from bed and I typed away in a closet-size office, was not conducive to desire of any kind, except maybe the desire to escape. So in May 2021, we moved to a bigger place with two floors, a kitchen island that evokes a Nancy Meyers set, and a backyard. Thinking about the rent, $2,000 more than what we had been paying, made my face melt. But Michael felt it was worth the splurge. I spent three months regretting all the cheaper shitholes we didn’t take; I felt so ashamed whenever guests gawked at our new space that I made sure to emphasize this was a pandemic deal or that we only could afford the rent because Michael took a job in tech. I had impostor syndrome in my own home. Now, I have to concede that being able to avoid each other’s sight lines in an apartment that impresses our parents has been a relationship salve. Sure, we became a little more spendthrift, cutting back on restaurant bills and bar tabs. But we gained enough space to vent about one another on private phone calls and hide out from each other’s friends.

I don’t regret a cent. Still, I think about the money a lot. It’s a common refrain among shrinks and self-help books that healthy couples need to “invest” in their relationships, but rarely do they acknowledge just how literal this investment can be and how few couples can actually afford to do “the work.” (It’s worth noting the strong correlation between divorce rates and income.) Michael and I had a mutual willingness to work things out; we like each other’s families and have similar values. Still, it was money that allowed us to make real changes. Couples therapy and a higher rent were our first big down payments, which led to other investments over the past four years — “date nights” and vacations with upgraded hotel rooms and meal splurges made specifically to help us “connect” as a couple. Spending money gave us the ladder to climb out our well of resentments; it gave us the perspective to look at our problems clearly and to finally start having some fun.

Michael and I met at work in 2011. While flirting over Google Chats and making excuses to stay late at the office, we discovered we had gone to the same elementary school and briefly lived in the same neighborhood. Eventually, he broke up with his long-term girlfriend and started spending nights at my place. Soon, differences in living habits emerged, but they mostly made us laugh. He referred to my room as “the garret” and claimed it housed a small colony of bugs. I mocked his custom-made kitchen island and his condo that had “Live, Laugh, Love” painted in the hallways. A year later, we moved in together. Before the 12-month lease was even up, I decided I wanted to live in New York. My memory is that he did too. I was working at HuffPost in Toronto, and my dual citizenship meant I could easily transfer to the U.S. newsroom. He stayed behind to pack up our apartment and start the mountain of paperwork required to apply for a work visa.

The next year and a half was a blur of riding subways in the wrong direction and working so late that mice would boldly dart across the office floors. When Michael came to visit, he felt like a slightly misshapen puzzle piece that didn’t quite fit my new life. We fought, he procrastinated on his visa application, and by the time he joined me in New York a year and a half later, our relationship had some deep cracks. While I had been hazed by a city that tries to kill newcomers, Michael felt like he was uprooting his life for someone who didn’t appreciate any of the sacrifices he was making. I had chosen my career; he had chosen me.

By the time we had both settled in Brooklyn, our endearing differences had turned into irritants. He was detail-oriented and easily bothered by a stray Kleenex on the floor. I was messy and sensitive to his punitive tone. It’s just a fucking Kleenex, I’d mutter to myself. Our arguments about how late he slept in or how I always left the closet doors open were buckling under the weight of a subtext neither of us understood. Then came the pandemic, trapping our problems within our own walls. We both sobbed a lot, on opposite sides of the apartment. Maybe this was the dreaded “drifting apart” phase of a long-term relationship, I thought, when one person utters the most devastating sentiment in all of human history: “I just don’t feel the same.” I thought about all the collateral damage, like How much would rent cost once we inevitably broke up? But we both wanted to stay together, so we turned to some expensive means of repair.

After roughly a year of couples therapy, when Michael and I could once again stand each other’s company, our shrink suggested we needed to have fun. As quarantines lifted, we made a point of spending Saturdays together. We tried to leave our worst qualities at home. I would curb my impulse to plan every minute, and he would get out of bed before noon. We would let novelty transform us. None of these experiences came cheap — from the 2021 U.S. Open (tickets: $300, Honey Deuces: $20 a pop), to a touristy harbor cruise and dinner ($250) or dim sum and a movie ($120) — but they showcased different, more generous sides to our personality. We were curious about the city, charismatic with strangers, and didn’t care about the dirty dishes while staring at the lit-up Statue of Liberty. Over the past three years, we’ve spent more than $10,000 just to make sure we leave the couch.

Two years ago, that figure would have made my stomach liquify. Thirty-six dollars for pasta? But once I started to see the benefits of these indulgences, I felt less anxious. I wasn’t just sinking $36 on some gravy-drenched starch; I was paying for an experience that would make Michael and me feel close, as we slurped bucatini and made googly eyes at each other, Lady and the Tramp style. Yes, the wine and charcuterie at the spa were overpriced, but we got to sit in plush bathrobes, staring at the New York skyline from Governors Island. Making these choices to spend a little more has had long-term effects; we were storing up goodwill, one overpriced oyster at a time, to draw from in darker moments.And we were signaling to each other that being in a functional relationship right now was more important than saving for retirement or a mortgage or buying a piece of furniture that we’d only have to argue over once we inevitably broke up.

Since starting therapy, our vacation costs have gone up, too. I had always prioritized travel with friends, but on recent group trips to Mexico and France, Michael and I have tacked on a few days in a different city by ourselves. Now, when we visit my parents at their cottage, we always splurge for a hotel night so we can have sex, eat steak, and take a bubble bath. Last year, these choices added roughly $5,000 to our regular travel tab. On these sojourns, we briefly became the people we initially fell in love with, before we argued over top sheets and shared a toilet. Back at home, when we are headlocked in some inane argument or fantasizing about having two beds, we can remember rolling around Paris like overstuffed pigs, saying “yes, and” to everything on a menu and believing our union to be perfect.

Last spring, we went to Japan by ourselves. A lot could have gone wrong. I had done most of the planning (resentment alert!) and we were navigating a city with a different time zone, language, and subway system. On past vacations, our differences in travel styles have caused meltdowns and tense standoffs. I blamed him when we ended up on a shitty hike and watched in anger while he wanted to spend our entire trip to Miami in bed. Even our therapist seemed worried. But our investments in our relationship had paid off. There were a few rough spots, but for the most part we compromised, emoted, and empathized like couples therapy Olympic athletes. Michael satisfied the control freak in me by reviewing our detailed itinerary each morning. I satisfied his inner hedonist by letting him book an upscale hotel in Kyoto for a few nights. At one point, while visiting a shrine, we both burst into tears. We were surrounded by beauty and genuinely happy to be together. It was a beautiful moment, one that cost us $6,000 over the course of two weeks.

Four years later, most of our monthly coupledom costs feel more like paying maintenance fees than emergency repairs. But these fees still keep going up. Our therapy bill is now $350 a session, and our rent increased by a whopping 17 percent last year. (Did I briefly think we had to move immediately and ditch our therapist? Of course.) Inflation pasta costs at least $42, and seeinga movie somehow always ends up setting us back $100. But when I think about this money, I’m no longer hung up on the literal dollar amount. I see it as the necessary cost of keeping myself in an enjoyable relationship, one that doesn’t make me want to bolt or scream into a pillow every night. And the stronger our relationship grows, the less necessary splurges become. A burger at our neighborhood spot can sometimes leave us hornier than a steak dinner at Gage & Tollner, for a third of the price. Now that our fights don’t disturb the neighbors, we’ve talked about scaling back our therapy to twice a month. But other costs are less negotiable, no matter how well we’re doing. I’d sooner get a divorce than move back into our 600-square-foot apartment.

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Angelina Chapin , 2024-02-13 14:00:01

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