My Partner Is Broke. Should I Pay His Rent?

It’s not a straightforward yes.

by Sophie K Rosa

12 June 2024

Photo: Adobe Stock

This is the tenth edition of Red Flags, Novara Media’s advice column for anti-capitalists. Inspired by our columnist Sophie K Rosa’s book, Radical Intimacy, Red Flags explores how capitalism fucks up our intimate lives – not just our romantic relationships, but also our friendships, home lives, family ties, and experiences of death and dying – and what we can do about it. To submit a question to Sophie, email [email protected] or, if you’d like more anonymity, fill out this form.

Dear Sophie,

My partner earns slightly less than me and pays far more in rent. He also drinks and smokes a lot, but struggles to stop (I believe this is related to quite complicated mental health issues). My life costs less, and I tend to save each month – adding to savings I have accumulated over several years. I’m not rich, I couldn’t buy a house or anything, but I don’t worry about money on a day-to-day basis, although I do worry a lot about the future (What if I have children? What if my bad mental health worsens and I can’t work?)

I often insist on paying for things because otherwise we simply wouldn’t be able to go for dinner, or even to the pub, and I give him small loans to tide him over, that I often don’t actually ask him to repay.

Sometimes, he doesn’t have enough to pay rent and it feels deeply unethical – and unintuitive – not to just give him some money, when I have plenty. But he is concerned that this would create a power dynamic, or could lead to resentment. I don’t feel this is unavoidable – I firmly believe we should be able to redistribute money according to need among our close friends and lovers, at least. This principle should in theory let me give freely without feeling resentful.

Yet, despite this belief, sometimes, when it feels like he doesn’t give as much to the relationship as I do, and doesn’t try to care for me in the way I care for him, having spent so much money on him contributes to a feeling of being taken from – almost as if I have been wounded in some way.

Should I persuade him to take a more substantial amount of money? If so, how do I avoid either of us feeling bad about it in the long term?

– Bailing Out My Boyfriend

Dear Bailing Out My Boyfriend,

It is often said that money is one of the things couples argue about the most. In some ways, money seems straightforward – a matter of facts and figures – but there is a lot to it. I think this is reflected in your question; it seems that you want this money matter to be simple but at the same time know that it is far from it.

There is so much at stake with money as we know it. Capitalism’s systemic injustice can play out – or seem to play out – interpersonally. On average, for example, white workers get paid more than Black workers; men get paid more than women; cis people get paid more than trans people; disabled people get paid less

It is important to bear such structural factors in mind when relating to each other. And this may well be the case when it comes to finances. Put simply, if someone has more money in a relationship – perhaps especially if they do due to their particular societal privileges – it might indeed feel just for them to offer the other financial support. Of course, how this is received will depend on the people involved and their unique dispositions and relationships to money: an offer of financial support from a loved one might feel fair and welcome to one person, fraught and insulting to another. 

You have shared that your partner earns “slightly less” than you, “pays far more in rent” and spends a lot on drinking and smoking, you believe due to his mental health – though you have also shared that you, too, struggle with your mental health. There is a lot I don’t know, that might be helpful to consider. What are your class backgrounds? How do each of you earn your respective incomes? Do you have access to family money? 

You write that you “firmly believe we should be able to redistribute money according to need among our close friends and lovers, at least,” and that you think this principle “should in theory” free you from the possibility of resentment. 

I don’t think there is anything wrong with you offering your partner money, if you are both comfortable enough with this financial dynamic – or at least, willing to have potentially uncomfortable conversations around it. But it seems you have both at least somewhat identified challenges here: he is concerned about a power dynamic and resentment; you have worries about your future financial security, and you feel wounded. 

Wealth redistribution on a structural level has established blueprints, or at least frameworks: via taxation, the welfare state, universal basic income, workers’ cooperatives; seizing the means of production, the abolition of private property, the commons. But when it comes to interpersonal wealth redistribution among people we know, it may be that there is a lot more at play – including, as you and your partner discuss, complex emotional dynamics. 

As you have discovered – whether it reflects your political values or not – difficult scenarios can arise from financial dynamics becoming interwoven with relational ones. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t share money with your partner, if that’s what you both want and decide to do. I just wonder if there is enough communication happening about it. 

Then there’s the matter of what’s affordable for you – financially, as well as, relatedly, emotionally – and how you are making that call. I don’t know about you, but I have noticed that rich people tend to be less generous interpersonally, as well as hoarding wealth structurally, than those with less. I think the question of giving to strangers asking us for money – for example rough sleepers – is also relevant here. People make very different calculations as to whether they can ‘afford’ to give others money; having this ability to ‘decide’ can be a form of power, and how giving we are is rarely proportionate to our own financial status. 

It sounds like you are putting a lot of loving thought into how to support your partner, financially and otherwise. I am wondering, from what you’ve shared, if you experience reciprocity in the relationship – if not financially, then in how he supports and cares for you in other ways. It seems you are already aware on some level that feelings of mutuality – or lack thereof – could inform the risk of resentment, or other painful emotions. 

Communalising resources can be praxis. And while we live in a society set up for individualism, doing so in a sustainable way – usually, anyway – requires careful thought, planning, and agreements. You could think of sharing with a partner this way. That said, it is worth noting that – even under capitalism – pooling our assets with a single partner or within the nuclear family is more or less the norm. Indeed, doing so might somewhat satisfy an innate desire for communality – albeit within units that slot nicely into capitalist social relations. Because, as Mark Fisher writes in Post-Capitalist Desire, “living in a family is living collectively. It’s just a very restricted form of it.”

Rather than ‘persuading’ your boyfriend to take more money from you, I would suggest you have a broader and deeper conversation about resources, care and reciprocity in the relationship. This might include talking about your individual and relational finances, as well as your respective ideas and values about wealth redistribution. It is possible that your partner would like to accept more support under different emotional circumstances, or that he’d rather you financially support people or causes other than him. Gift-giving and receiving under prevailing social conditions can be complicated, as much as we don’t think it should be.

Your letter poses a vital question: What do we owe each other? I think the answer is everything – but, devastatingly, we live in a society dominated by the logic that we owe each other nothing at all. Whatever you and your partner agree about finances in your relationship, there is a lot to consider. While living in the capitalist system – trying to survive, be well, find some sense of security – how do we prefigure the world we really want? One in which, as the psychoanalyst Eric Fromm put it, “we find joy that comes from giving and sharing, not from hoarding and exploiting.”

Sophie K Rosa is a freelance journalist and the author of Radical Intimacy.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.