When Jo and I had been together for a while, I went back to Ireland to study for an M-Phil (an MA, in Britain). Jo felt this would be a significant test of our relationship. I didn’t realise she thought this, so didn’t question our commitment, didn’t sleep with anybody, and thus passed the test I didn’t know I was taking! (Luckily! Hey – no one was asking and, anyway, I was living with my parents!) We stayed together.
Despite paying minimal rent to the old pair – I insisted -, I had no money left when I returned to live with Jo, in her house. I went straight to the Job Centre to look for a job and to see about getting unemployment benefit.
One of the questions they asked me was about my relationship with my landlord. Jo and I had talked about this. She wanted me to be completely honest. I felt there was no need to complicate the issue, as I wasn’t applying for housing benefit. It would be dishonest to say that it was a casual relationship, but we had not yet made any long-term promises, and there was no knowing what might happen in future. More importantly, I had always been financially independent. We split the bills, even weekly food bills.
But I trust Jo’s judgement, so I dutifully admitted that I was in a relationship with the owner of my lodgings.
It was immediately clear my request would be denied. The bloke seemed almost incredulous, as if he thought I was making a fraudulent claim. I tried to explain the circumstances – that nothing about Jo’s behaviour suggested she had accepted financial responsibility for me – but it felt very awkward. Further explanation could be embarrassingly intimate, because presumably if our relationship was platonic, I’d still be eligible. It seemed I might have to explain what acts we indulged in and for whose gratification; who initiated.
I didn’t think this was any of his business. If you accept the principle of the state providing income support, surely the money should be shared out according to need. You shouldn’t be allowed to deny claims because you disapprove of people’s (non-financial) living arrangements.
I had explained to him that I was self-supporting, but he wanted to know who I was sleeping with. Suddenly we were dealing with the subtleties of attitudes and assumptions about sex. Would he look on my claim differently if I could convince him that the sex was casual or that I didn’t feel emotionally invested in it, or if I felt exploited and degraded?
Relationships are personal and individual: are matters of opinion not objective truth, and are all different. What if you occasionally got drunk and shagged your landlady? What if you were sleeping with someone but they were polyamorous or simply not in love with you, or unsure they wanted to stay in the relationship or just unwilling to pay for you, or psychologically abusive and trying to imprison you by taking control of your money?
But I felt unable to say any of this, and so the British Government pimped me out, because they were openly saying, “if she’s sleeping with you, then she has to pay for you”!
I know I sound like an unrepentant and entitled scrounger and I understand the state’s point of view. It can’t be expected to underwrite every delicate scruple held by every couple in the opening stages of their relationships. It doesn’t want to discover that it’s been financing the hidden gambling habits of billionaires’ partners. It doesn’t want to facilitate benefit fraud but, to be fair, it can’t make its decisions about who is lying and who isn’t based on hunches. Better to treat everyone equally by denying ALL claims where the appealer is foolish enough to mention their personal life.
But I guess any blank denial or rejection puts your hackles up. If you suggest something and your interlocutor simply says, “Nope” you want to punch them on the nose, don’t you? I went away brooding.
Jo was perfectly willing to pay for everything, because she’s generous, but I was horrified. My financial independence was important to me. It was an attitude I’d picked up from Lulu, at university. All my adult life, I’d paid my way and that felt good. I never took anything from anybody, (apart from my parents!), and luckily I’d never needed to. Yet here I was suddenly beholden, subordinate, grateful, living off handouts, cap in hand, having to justify how and why I was spending money that was no longer mine, that I hadn’t earned.
This situation only lasted a few weeks. I got a job pretty much immediately, as I’d been intending to. I don’t mind doing whatever work is available, however lowly. I’ve never been overly proud in that respect, probably because all jobs have been stop-gaps for me, on the road to becoming a professional writer.
But it was the first example of a worrying trend. From then on, I’ve never recovered even my potential for economic independence. Jo pays the mortgage, the council tax, the utility bills. I contribute as I can. I buy most of the food, for example, but her salary is possibly as much as 4 or 5 times mine, before tax. (I don’t ask. It’s the last vestige of my pride) so she is single-handedly sustaining our shamefully comfortable lifestyle: if I died, the family circumstances wouldn’t alter much; if she died we’d be destitute.
I was dependent, cut down to size. How could I pay her back?